RIPE FOR PICKING

Mexico 2016 | AGRICULTURE | FOCUS: BERRIES

Mexico has become one of the top global producers of berries and is improving the prosperity of many of its poorest regions by supporting cultivation of the fruits.

Twenty years ago, Mexico had no berry industry to speak of and was better known for its traditional agricultural export products like cactus, tequila, and avocados. However, the past two decades have seen Mexico rise to become the third-largest berry exporter in the world and the number-one international supplier to the US berry market. This transformation has been due to a combination of production challenges in traditional berry growing areas like California and Chile and efforts by the Mexican government to promote the berry industry as a catalyst for rural development in some of the poorest areas of the country.

Mexico is now one of the largest global players in the fresh berry production and export industry, producing 30% of the world's berries, according to Mexico News Network. In just the past five years, Mexico has nearly doubled the value of its berry exports to the world. In 2015, despite a slowdown in the value of the peso, Mexico exported around $108 billion in fresh strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, according to the Consejo Nacional Agropecuario, while berry exports in 2011 totaled around $670 million. According to Mario Steta of Driscoll's Mexico, that growth is expected to continue and could reach $3 billion in exports by 2020, which would place berry exports ahead of both avocados and tomatoes, two major export crops for Mexico.
According to Bernardo Baader of Agrana Fruit, one of the largest fruit producers in the world with a presence in 21 countries, “demand for berries has been increasing all around the world, but mostly in the US.” At the same time, berry production in California, traditionally a powerhouse of berry production, has been falling “due to water shortage, cost of land, and shortage of labor.” As a result, many companies have looked to expand or relocate operations from California to Mexico.

From the other side, the Mexican government has worked to promote the growth of the berry industry as a way of supporting rural development in some of the poorest regions of the country. Around 70% of Mexico's berries are produced in Michoacán, a rural state that has long held a reputation for poor social indicators, high levels of poverty, and problems with violence and insecurity. Before the arrival of the berry industry, the region grew crops like potatoes and sugarcane, which typically fetched lower prices in international markets and required relatively few workers for production. Fresh berries, on the other hand, bring in much more money for exporters and require around 40 times as many workers to care for the plants and harvest the berries by hand. As a result, the berry industry has been a major source ofjob creation in rural areas and is now the second most important economic activity in the state of Michoacán.

Mexico's main export market for berry production so far has been the US, with 80-90% of Mexican berries heading north across the border, making Mexico the single largest supplier of berries to the US. The challenge now facing many producers is diversification. One element of that has been working to increase domestic berry consumption. Berries have become a popular health food in recent years in the US, leading to a steady increase in demand. However, berry consumption per capita in Mexico is just 10% of per capita berry consumption in the US. Many producers see increased domestic consumption as a way to overcome the logistics challenges of transporting a delicate product with a short shelf life to markets that are relatively far away.