What Drought? Mexico’s Desert Farms Are Booming.

What's to come?
March 13 2014 10:47 AM

The Thirsty West: What Drought?

Mexico’s desert farms are booming.

More than 60 percent of winter produce consumed in the United States passes through this stretch of Interstate 19 between the border town of Nogales and Tucson.
More than 60 percent of winter produce consumed in the United States passes through this stretch of Interstate 19 between Tucson and the Arizona border town of Nogales.

Photo by Eric Holthaus

NOGALES, Ariz.—Here on the U.S.–Mexico border, crazy things happen this time of year. Lots of border towns have some pretty weird quirks, sure, but when it comes to North American food policy, there may be no place stranger than Nogales.

This hilly town serves as the primary gateway for tomatoes, corn, melon, and other fruits and vegetables traveling from Mexico to the United States. In fact, 60 to 70 percent of winter produce for consumption in the United States visits this town first, according to the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, an industry group. If you’ve had fresh veggies this winter, odds are they came to your plate via a truck that passed through Nogales. The rest comes from Florida or passes through other border posts.

The steady stream of truck traffic is most impressive on “produce row,” a frontage road paralleling Interstate 19 where most of the warehouses are located, just a few miles north of the border. The region is in the final stages of a border crossing expansion that will more than double the number of trucks that can pass through this area. When completed later this year, Nogales will be able to handle commercial border crossings at a rate of nearly three trucks per second.

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These are the crazy lengths to which our globalized food system goes to deliver fresh produce out of season.

“The ability to get that produce to the market is improving. All these U.S. companies are investing in farms in Mexico,” says Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas. Technological advances in drip irrigation, greenhouses, and genetically modified seeds have boosted Mexican vegetable production in recent years. “Effectively, that means the growing season [in Mexico] keeps getting longer—a few weeks earlier, a few weeks later—each year.” The “winter season” for Mexico currently stretches from January to June.

And now, with the California drought putting extra pressure on farmers there to fallow vegetable fields, Nogales could be in prime position to cash in.

Jungmeyer explained the farmer’s drought-altered calculus north of the border: If a California farmer has little water, he has to prioritize. Fruits and nuts that grow on trees will take precedence. If a farmer usually grows both bell peppers and almonds, for example, he’ll likely fallow the pepper field. Instead of being grown in California, those peppers will probably be trucked up from Mexico (and through Nogales).

This time of year, the trucks crossing over from Mexico are filled with squash, melons, corn, and countless other fresh foods more typically found during the midsummer months in the eastern United States. But here in Nogales, tomatoes are king.

In 2011, New York Times writer Elisabeth Rosenthal examined the extravagance of sourcing organic tomatoes from the Mexican desert in midwinter. Her piece was summarized by Mother Jones in 2012:

In addition to lacking water, desert land is also deficient in organic matter: decayed plant material that gives soil tilth and the ability to hold nutrients. Just how stark is the landscape on which these tomatoes are being grown? According to Rosenthal, growers in Baja “describe their toil amid the cactuses as ‘planting the beach.’ ”

When I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona in Tucson—which, by the way, is having water issues of its own—I contemplated devoting my entire Ph.D. to the many tomatoes passing through Nogales. The U of A recently completed a comprehensive study on the cross-border economic implications of this exact phenomenon. So, I was excited to visit for the first time earlier this month as part of my Thirsty West series on Western water issues for Slate.

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