CIUDAD GUZMAN, Mexico – Mexico, already the world's third-largest exporter of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries, is looking for ways to get U.S. consumers to throw more fresh blueberries into the pancake batter and heap more raspberries onto their fruit salads.
As long as U.S. and other foreign consumers wolf down berries, Mexican proponents of the industry say, the surge will continue. That's more than just an agricultural oddity in a land better-known for fields of blue-green agave and patches of cactus.
The industry, which didn't exist less than two decades ago, employs more than 100,000 people and reaps nearly $1 billion a year. And it's still emerging from its adolescence.
"We're starting some huge growth," said Javier Trujillo Arriaga, Mexico's senior federal plant health director. "It's been spectacular, absolutely spectacular."
"It's likely the industry will employ 200,000 people in five years," said Mario Steta Gandara, former head of the National Association of Berry Exporters, a trade association that began only five years ago.
The story of Mexico's berry industry begins in distant lands — California and Chile — where fruit farmers encountered a number of difficulties ranging from water shortages to high shipping costs and inadequate access to migrant workers. So growers looked elsewhere.
Mexico's largest berry producer is Driscoll's, the California company. Its chief executive, Miles Reiter, a third-generation berry man, came to Mexico around 1995.
"A worker … in California invited Miles to a wedding in Jalisco in the middle of winter," Steta said. "He came, he saw the environment … and he wondered if it was not the right environment for berries."
Reiter quickly determined that bushes and vines would sprout from the soil, but he kept his plan low-key for a number of years, quietly doing trials in Mexico in the late 1990s. Then conditions in California pushed him to action. An anti-immigrant mood made it harder to get field labor there to harvest his berries.
The berry industry's growth has been so rapid that problems have arisen. At some times of the year, the country lacks refrigerated trucks to move berries, which have a shelf life of about 45 days. Better laws are needed to protect proprietary varieties. And capital costs are high. Rather than coming from seeds, the vines and bushes must be propagated from roots and stems, brought from the U.S. and other countries.
Two dozen companies belong to the berry exporters' association, and those that have mastered the supply chain note proudly how quickly their berries get plucked from the vine or bush, sent to cooling chambers, then on to refrigerated trucks.
When Mexico-grown berries show up on U.S. supermarket shelves, few consumers notice the provenance.
"The same brands that U.S. consumers are used to seeing on supermarket shelves — like Driscoll's, like Naturipe, like Dole — are sourcing [their berries] in Mexico now," said Mario Andrade Cardenas, a grower from Michoacan state who's the head of the berry exporters' association.
"Today, Mexico is the principal source of berries for the United States outside of U.S. production," he said.