Snow has arrived in Arizona’s high country, and parts of the country are already in the grips of a winter chill, but grocery store produce sections across the United States are still full of fresh fruits and vegetables.
That’s in large part because of Arizona’s role in facilitating the importation of fresh winter vegetables.
Nogales, Arizona, is one of the nation’s leading entry points for the importation of Mexican-grown fruits and vegetables, which pass through the Nogales-Mariposa Arizona Port of Entry.
Always a hotspot for fresh Mexican-grown tomatoes, the Mariposa port of entry is also a major gateway for chili and bell peppers, cucumbers, melons, berries and more.
“We’re going to see really good volumes of not only tomatoes but also good volumes of squash and bell peppers,” Lance Jungmeyer, president and CEO of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, said of this year’s winter vegetable harvest.
Nogales will also see high-volume importation of produce more typically associated with the summer months.
“Even this time of year, we’re importing watermelons,” Jungmeyer said. “That’s an area where the consumer demand is coming in the form of cut melons.”
Meeting national consumer demand
Nogales is essential to meeting national consumer demand when Mother Nature wreaks havoc on domestic crops.
Thanksgiving shoppers will be thankful about that — they can still buy fresh green beans, despite a cold snap in the southeastern U.S. that affected the supply and quality of green beans from that region for the worse.
“We’re seeing good demand for a lot of produce in Nogales right now,” Jungmeyer said. “The supply we have is good.”
Jungmeyer said he does not anticipate that shoppers will pay more for green beans this holiday, as many retailers have already set and advertised their prices for popular Thanksgiving ingredients.
SR-189 critical to Nogales, state
The uptick in activity at the port means increased truck traffic along State Route 189, also known as Mariposa Road, which connects the port of entry to Interstate 19, the north-south corridor between Nogales and Tucson.
SR-189 is slated for a significant upgrade, thanks to funds designated by the state Legislature and the Arizona Department of Transportation to fast-track work on the trade route.
Jungmeyer said Nogales could be on the brink of breaking its previous record for commercial truckloads this year.
“We’re definitely very thankful to Gov. Ducey and the Legislature for the funds that they appropriated towards this SR-189 project,” he said. “It’s going to be a big deal not only for Nogales, but really for the whole state.”
Warehouse space hard to come by
Before the fruits and vegetables that enter Nogales are distributed throughout the nation, they stop at one of the climate-controlled warehouses near the port of entry. That warehouse space is becoming increasingly hard to come by, however.
“This season, warehouse space is going to be at a premium,” Jungmeyer said.
Due to new federally mandated inspection requirements for Mexican tomatoes, warehouses will be forced to hold shipments longer while they await inspection; palates usually packed close together will have to be arranged further apart in order for inspectors to maneuver around them, taking up valuable space, Jungmeyer said.
Despite logistical and infrastructure-related challenges, Jungmeyer said optimism remains high for a successful winter season and another in the spring, which is likely to be even busier.
“We used to operate like a bell curve, but now we have two peaks,” Jungmeyer said. “So, starting in December through the end of February, it’ll grow like a bell curve peak and then it’ll drop off a little bit. And then, in late March through the end of June, we’ll have another peak, and that peak is even stronger than what we call the winter peak.”