Apple growers in Mexico call foul on trade with U.S.

Twenty years after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) put Mexican apple growers into direct competition with their U.S. counterparts, Mexican growers warn their industry may collapse under the weight of imports.

BACHÍNIVA, Mexico — Isaí Gómez, a Mexican apple grower, bitterly recounts the events of last season. Around this time last year, hope prevailed in Mexico’s high-desert apple country. Bad weather had devastated the two previous years’ harvests. But in the summer of 2013, the trees were heavy with fruit.

A couple months later, Gómez, along with his two brothers, harvested 1.5 million pounds of apples — their best haul in years. He was expecting to make about $200,000 in U.S. dollars. Then, they waited for the buyers who come from the cities to purchase apples directly from the orchards around Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, about 300 miles south of El Paso, Texas.

But last year, the buyers mostly stayed away. Gomez didn’t make any money, in fact, he lost about $100,000.

Gómez, 66, said he tried selling the apples himself, trucking them from his rancho in Bachíniva to markets in far-flung cities. There were no takers.

“It was all the same,” he recalled. “They were full of American apples.”

Mexico’s bumper crop coincided with a year of record imports of U.S. apples. American growers export more apples to Mexico than to any other country. In 2013, they exported 61 percent more to Mexico than they had, on average, over the previous decade, U.S. data show.

Gómez wound up selling his fruit to a juice company that paid him 1 peso per kilo — less than a third of what it cost to produce it. Given the pitiful prices, some growers let their fruit rot in the orchards, while others fed it to animals or dumped it in protest.

This spring, Gómez surveyed his bountiful but still unprofitable apple trees and cut many of them to the ground.

FERN-Apple-graphicTwenty years after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) put Mexican apple growers into direct competition with their U.S. counterparts, Mexican growers warn their industry may collapse under the weight of imports. They blame their government for letting U.S. apples flood the market without helping its own industry become more competitive.

They also accuse U.S. growers of violating the terms of NAFTA by selling apples under the cost of production — a practice called dumping, which the U.S. industry denies — and are demanding a federal investigation. They’ve asked for a halt on U.S. imports during certain months and for federal relief. In the spring, they staged protests and joined with other disgruntled farmers to shut down electric-company offices, occupy toll booths and block lanes on two of the bridges connecting the U.S. and Mexico.

The $4 billion U.S. apple industry has been watching the situation with concern, said Rebecca Lyons, the Washington Apple Commission’s international marketing director. But she contends the Mexicans are making the U.S. apple industry a scapegoat for what is really a domestic problem. Mexican growers didn’t have the means to develop export markets this year, she said, and caused some of their own heartache by picking too many small apples.

“Everyone just harvested everything they could,” Lyons said. “They didn’t thin, they didn’t use good management practices. They have to do something to help themselves.”

Apples are among Chihuahua’s most lucrative crop, and the sector employs about 35,000 people. The crisis could have broad effects in the region, said Ricardo Márquez, head of the state’s main apple growers’ association, the Unión Agricola Regional de Fruticultores del Estado de Chihuahua (UNIFRUT).

If the industry vanishes, it could drive more people to work with the state’s powerful drug cartels, which are always recruiting. Or the displaced growers and workers could try their luck as immigrants in the north, like millions of small farmers who grew corn.

Márquez was one of many growers drowning in fruit last year. By the time most Chihuahuan growers were harvesting, the markets were full of U.S. apples, some of which had been picked the previous fall, Mexican market reports indicate. Growers felt they had become an “escape valve” for the Americans’ excess apples, Márquez said. Many called it a “market takeover.”

Patricio Martínez, a senator from Chihuahua, in a speech in the national senate in March said, “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 at their conditions, once they have made Mexico’s apple industry disappear.”

Lyons rejects the claim. “We are not trying to destroy their market,” she said. “There is room for both industries in the market.”

She says U.S. and Mexican growers fill different niches: Mexican apples are cheaper and considered sweeter. U.S. apples come in more varieties and are bigger and prettier, she said.

“It’s a marketplace,” Lyons said. “If we were shipping low-quality apples that Mexican consumers didn’t like, then we wouldn’t be in the market.”

But many in Mexico suspect unfair competition. After Martínez’s speech, the senate unanimously passed a resolution calling for the suspension of all sales of foreign apples until authorities investigated whether they were treated with harmful chemicals — a claim made by politicians and industry representatives. The resolution, approved in the lower chamber, also called for a dumping investigation.

Proving dumping is neither clear-cut nor quick. And, to the frustration of lawmakers, Mexico’s government has made no signal that it will investigate the allegation. It may be reluctant to repeat history: In 1996, Mexico accused some U.S. growers of dumping and imposed tariffs as punishment. Then in 2010, a NAFTA review panel declared that the dumping determination was made using outdated data, and the retaliatory tariffs were lifted the following year.

At the heart of Mexico’s apple country is Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, a boomtown surrounded by orchards, frothy with blossoms in April. There, apple grower Mario Barraza explained that Mexican growers don’t oppose trade but have struggled to compete with their northern counterparts since NAFTA took effect.

The Mexican and U.S. apple industries are vastly different: 85 percent of the apples Mexico imports are grown in Washington, home to a large, vertically integrated industry that the U.S. International Trade Commission calls the most efficient in the nation.

Chihuahua’s industry is more homespun. It has only about a third as many apple acres as Washington and its orchards are less productive. According to UNIFRUT, about 60 percent of the growers work fewer than 24 acres. They struggle to tap into large multinational grocery-store chains that have come to dominate Mexican food sales.

Labor is cheaper in Mexico than in the U.S., but credit is tight and energy costly. As a result, fewer than half of Chihuahua’s growers have access to controlled-atmosphere storage, a type of refrigeration that can keep apples from spoiling. While most Mexican growers have just a few months to sell their crop, American growers who rely on controlled-atmosphere storage for exports can wait until prices are more favorable.

And, while Mexican growers export a tiny percentage of their crop, U.S. growers export almost a third. They get federal help to promote their products abroad; in 2014, the U.S. Agriculture Department awarded the Washington Apple Commission $4.9 million for such purposes.

Mexican growers, in contrast, largely feel abandoned by their government. Although Mexico gradually reduced tariffs on imported apples when NAFTA took effect, it did little else to help the countryside, said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Instead, the government plowed money into manufacturing, he said.

Asked what the government did to help him compete, Barraza answered, “Nada, nada, nada.”

Still, Chihuahua’s growers have tried to modernize, by planting new varieties of dwarf trees that require less labor. Drip irrigation was installed along with heaters and nets to protect from frosts and hail. Nationally, production per hectare more than tripled between 2000 and 2009, according to government statistics.

Márquez, of UNIFRUT, says the growers have managed these gains despite the government.

“Abandoned as we are, we’ve managed to stay standing and even grow a bit by the sweat of our brow,” he said. “If we were on equal footing with our neighbors, imagine what we could do.”

But time may be running out. In the spring, Gómez cried when his trees came down, but he couldn’t afford to keep them. “It’s unacceptable, but we are left with no other choice,” he said. “The Mexican countryside is dying and no one will help us.”

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