Listen to “Mexico is Waging War Against American Apples” on PRI’s The World
After 50 years in the apple business, Vicente Robles is cutting down most of his orchards. The trees are still productive, but no longer profitable.
This year, Mexican growers produced a record harvest.
“We were very happy,” said Robles. “The harvest was coming well after two years of not having one.”
But their bumper crop came after a year of record imports of American apples. By the time the Mexican growers were ready to sell their fruit, markets were already filled with apples from up north.
Mexican grower Isaí Gómez trucked his apples to wholesale markets in different cities. He found no takers.
“We had to give up on the markets and sell to the juice industry,” he said, “for one peso per kilo.”
That’s less than a third of what it cost to produce the apples. Now, growers can’t pay their workers or their bills. Vicente Robles also refrigerates apples for a lot of local growers. He owes the electric company $138,000 dollars.
“This has turned out to be a tremendous bust,” he said. “It’s like a snowball that was up above us and grew and grew as it rolled down the hillside.”
Chihuahua’s apple industry – which employs about 35,000 people– tried to get the Mexican government to suspend U.S. imports. In February, growers staged what they called a “survival march.” Others dumped apples in the streets in protest. The Mexican press was sympathetic. A local newspaper headline read: Gringo apples: Ugly, Old and Cold.
Mexican senator Patricio Martínez from Chihuahua tried forcing federal action – he did it standing on a box of unsold apples on the senate dais in Mexico City.
“Someone from outside our country wants to do away with Mexico’s apple plantings so that Mexico will become dependent on their production, at their prices and their conditions once they have made Mexico’s apple industry disappear,” he said.
Martínez said U.S. apples are treated with chemicals that could hurt public health. He also accused the U.S. of illegally “dumping”– selling apples at a price lower than production.
But, up in Washington State, they see the situation much differently.
“We really feel there is room for both industries in the market,” said Rebecca Lyons, the international marketing director for the Washington Apple Commission. She said they did sell a lot of apples in Mexico last year, but that’s because Mexico had so few apples of its own.
Mexican growers also caused some of their own heartache, she said – they grew too many apples.
“Everyone just harvested everything they could, they didn’t thin. They didn’t use good management practices,” she said. “They have to do something to help themselves.”
Lyons added that they’re also growing more and different varieties up north – and that gives Mexican consumers more choice.
Mexican growers say they aren’t against more trade, but they want more trade oversight. They’re asking the government to block U.S. imports around harvest time, to give them more of a chance to sell their apples. But U.S. government officials say that would violate the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA.
Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas program at the Center for International Policy, calls NAFTA “a straightjacket.”
“What it does is it strips the government of a series of very important development tools that the United States, of course, had during its period of development. These include the ability to protect strategic sectors, and if there’s any strategic sector, the production of basic food would be one,” she said. “All the deck is stacked against these small farmers. But in the end everybody’s going to pay the price.”
Since NAFTA was signed, countless Mexican small farmers have been driven out of business and crossed the US border illegally looking for work up north. Others have remained in Mexico, and turned to the drug cartels, which are always recruiting.
Apple growers in Chihuahua are hoping to avoid that fate. But it might be tough. Back at Vicente Robles’ packinghouse, he points to the dregs of the failed season: crates of tired yellow apples.
“There is a feeling of powerlessness,” he said. “I’m 71 years old. I’ve spent my whole life working here. And now, I’ve arrived at this point and my orchards don’t even give me enough to live on.”
He says it’s sad, but he has to be practical. And move on.
Apple grower Isaí Gómez vows that he won’t go down without a fight. He’s teaching his sons to defend the countryside.
“They should defend it and I’m going to help them,” he said.
He says they’re fighting for not just their livelihood, but their way of life.