Mexican lime sector hopes for better winter season
As the undisputed center of Mexico’s lime industry, the town of Martínez de la Torre might not at first glance impress the casual visitor. The riches of this medium-sized settlement in northern Veracruz, however, arguably lie outside its boundaries in the hundreds of acres of surrounding orchards.
Home to the 23 companies that form the Mexican Council of Persian Lime Producers and Exporters (Copelp), the growers in the Martínez de la Torre district boast the capacity to produce primarily Persian limes all year round, thanks to a largely benevolent climate.
As Xochitl Robles, Copelp’s treasurer and managing director of grower CG Exporta, explained, the region’s strength lies in its ability to ship substantial volumes of citrus to the U.S. and other international markets 365 days a year, with consistent quality throughout the seasons.
“We have limes that meet demand in the U.S. market not just for quality, but also in terms of phytosanitary requirements,” she said.
But although the region produces year round, each 12 month period is normally marked by strong peaks in production, especially during the area’s summer season – typically running from May through to July – when large volumes of citrus are harvested.
By contrast, the winter season, from December to March-April, is usually a period when lower volumes are harvested and the sector benefits from much higher prices.
The problem experienced by the industry during the last 12 months, Robles said, is that the expected drop in temperatures did not take place last spring, meaning that hoped-for prices were not forthcoming.
“Normally we expect production to fall during this period due to the weather conditions, but this year we’ve seen a lot of change and the production cycles are changing to different dates due to the effects of climate change,” she explained.
“It’s changing production volumes and because of this the volumes that we export. For example this year, 2012, was not a year of shortages because the cold was not as harsh as in 2011 when we had 4° C (39° F) temperatures.
“This year there wasn’t a fall in production because we didn’t have a winter and as a result of this, there was an oversupply of limes compared with the year before. This affected the prices we received. With the larger volumes, demand decreased.”
Signs for optimism
However, as the 2012-13 winter season begins, Robles said there are signs for optimism. In keeping with previous years, volumes have dropped during December.
From the average 450 lime truckloads that Martínez de la Torre ships out during each week of the year – totaling around 480,000 cartons per week – the volume drop has caused output to fall to a weekly 250 trucks, leading to renewed hope for better prices.
Although the U.S. and Canada are very much the focus for the winter season, Copelp’s members have an important export business to Europe, and increasingly other parts of the globe during the rest of the year. Between April and November, the Martínez de la Torre growers export limes principally to France, Italy, the U.K. and Germany, a hub for the rest of Europe. Japan is already an established market for the region’s limes in Asia as well.
More recently, Robles commented, Copelp’s members have begun to introduce the product into the Middle Eastern market. She added, however, that they are still at the test shipment stage.
Copelp’s confidence in export markets arguably comes from having the only lime producers in Mexico certified with quality and food safety standards. Robles added that the organization’s long-term goal is to achieve certification status for all of its growers.
Over the next 12 months, Robles said the group also wants to place a greater emphasis on improving quality through the planting of new trees and the removal of older orchards.
The success of the Veracruz town has also encouraged lime production in other regions of Mexico, including Jalisco, Puebla, Oaxaca and Chiapas, with the latter very much an emerging area for limes.
Among the notable companies to have emerged outside Veracruz is Sicar, which farms 800 hectares of citrus in the western state of Colima, primarily between February and April each year.
However, unlike the majority of growers in Veracruz, Sicar’s focus is not on Persian limes, but on the Mexican Key lime variety, which it sells both nationally and in the U.S. market.
Speaking by telephone, Sicar’s managing director Maria del Carmen Ochoa Delgado, explained that the company produces around 6,000 tons (MT) of limes every year. She did note, however, that there has been a fall in volumes during the past year due to citrus diseases.
Also unlike the Veracruz sector, the company’s location means that, due to high airfreight costs, its focus is largely on the U.S. market. Ochoa revealed that Sicar is hoping to expand its business in California during the coming season.
Of course, not all companies involved in the sector are producers, with a prime example being Mexico City-based exporter Exotimex, which specializes in overseas Persian lime shipments to markets including Europe, the U.S., Canada and Japan.
Based near Mexico City’s international airport, Exotimex’s Tamila Dib Ammour explained that the company – founded 25 years ago by Laurent Chabres, a former importer at Paris’ Rungis wholesale market – is not necessarily interested in volumes, but rather in quality.
“We are still growing, but with low volumes because we favor quality over quantity,” she said.
Although not a producer itself, Dib said Exotimex demands the highest quality from its associated growers for limes, which are marketed under its own brands, Bamba, Jade and Natury.
With quality products, Dib believes there will be room for further market growth for Mexican limes in Europe in the future, although she urges caution.
“Today, when new companies appear and want to speculate with prices – basing them on prices achieved during previous years for example – it unbalances the market, quality disappears and prices are pulled down,” Dib said. “The European market can grow, but it’s up to us, as Mexicans, to know what to send and how because the European importers know what to buy and when.”