U.S.: Mexican growers bet on crops for growing Asian, Latin populations
From long beans to litchis, jicamas to jalapeños, Mexican growers are increasingly looking to culturally-oriented crops to find their fortunes in the United States. During the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fresh Summit held in Orlando this month, we toured the Mexican stands to see how this trend was developing.
Click here for Mexican specialty produce photos from the event.
"Specialty products are something that are increasingly having more importance for buyers here in the United States and Canada," said the PMA's representative in Mexico, Alex Larreategui.
And the Mexican industry is responding - no longer is the Mexican produce export deal just about American cuisine staples like tomatoes, bell peppers and avocados, but crops like kabocha, litchis and cactus pears.
"As these Asian and ethnic segments grow they need more production, the United States doesn’t have the capacity to produce these types of products at competitive costs," Larreategui said.
"The labor cost is also an important issue – Mexico is converting this opportunity to find more ways of production and supplying the United States."
The PMA representative also pointed to rapid growth in greenhouse production and organics, as well as a cultural shift to comply with new regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
"This is an important point for small growers who don’t have resources all the access to financing to be able to invest in these new phytosanitary and food safety regulations and requirements," he said
"They could join other groups of growers and consolidate with a larger supply, or they’ll have to find resources to get on board."
One company making the most of the Asian market trend in North America is Nayarit-based of Productos Agropecuarios San Carlos.
The company's international trade representative Rodrigo Lumbreras said the group has been around for 16 years but now there is a notable change underway.
"The Asian market is the main one we have, and these are some of the products we have in this exhibition – long beans are the strongest for us, long squash, Thai eggplant, bitter melon, all of these are focused on the Asian market," he said
"The demand in Asian markets is increasingly selective but it’s growing. We were exhibiting in the CPMA in Canada and had a very good feedback. We are opening the East Coast now – we have presence in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Montreal and the idea is to keep growing.
"We are now certified in Primus, next year it’ll be GlobalG.A.P. and some of the products are now organic. That takes a bit longer."
Productos Agropecuarios San Carlos' 1,000 hectares of production are mostly dedicated to vegetables, shipping 8-10 containers per week north of the border, but it also exports Thai bananas and jackfruit.
"The Thai banana has a taste that’s a bit trickier - it’s a bit drier compared to traditional bananas, but it conserves the characteristics. Jackfruit also has a very peculiar taste.
"It [jackfruit] has many benefits. The majority of the products we manage have an impact on health. Now it’s not just Asian communities that are looking for them, but people with hypertension problems, or problems with diabetes – all of that is related.
Larreategui added the Mexican industry needed to develop the technology and resources to better deal with jackfruit, which could be an issue due to its size.
"There is a very different post-harvest condition which is very challenging for any grower or distributor but definitely Mexico has an important position in growing this fruit in several states.
"The first thing is to educate the consumer more about how to consume this fruit. It's very rich in nutrients, it has a delicious taste. But it is not easy – you can’t put it in the refrigerator."
Mexico's latent litchi deal
Another crop that has had supply challenges over the years is litchis. NG Global has been growing the sub-tropical fruit in Huasteca Potosina, Mexico for 30 years now, but like Lumbreras, NG's overseas trade representative Francisco Escobar is also seeing newfound possibilities.
"The demand has been growing in recent years due to the high concentrations of Asian populations in the U.S. market," Escobar said.
This is key as the executive has not seen much demand for litchis in Mexico itself.
"In the U.S. we have a consumers, but there was a gap between production and the consumer, which was the supply chain. The infrastructure wasn’t sufficient there to do post-harvest treatment of the fruit.
"This means that there is a lot of supply and there is also a lot of demand, but there is a lot of supply that’s not paid for and a lot of demand that’s paid for at expensive prices."
NG is aiming to bridge that gap however.
"We have improved our cooling systems, our selection process, and also as it’s a natural product – we don’t use any type of chemical that alters the nature of the fruit, so we’ve been able to venture into more attractive logistics networks like air shipments or large volumes in trucking shipments that don’t require much time," he said.
As a result, the company more than doubled its exports to 200 metric tons (MT) last year, which is five times the figure two years prior.
Escobar expected shipments to reach 250MT in 2016.
"There is a very attractive export market that’s been waiting for this supply to reach high value markets."
Growers feeling the Latino love
It isn't only the Asian communities in the United States that are looking for their traditional fruits and veggies grown closer to home in Mexico, but Latinos as well.
Jorge Amaya of Amaya Farms is banking on this community with 300 hectares of jicamas and 300 hectares of jalapeño peppers.
"Today, in terms of diets and their consumption, people are increasingly preferring the jicama. It’s like sweet potato but crunchy and it has a lot of water - Asian people use it in the kitchen for their roasts, for their chop suey.
"Normally we eat it fresh in slices or strips with salt, lemon and powdered chile. It's like a snack, you can use it a lot in salads.
"Now they’re making jicama tortillas and tacos too, with thin slices where you put shrimp inside as a kind of haute cuisine."
He added the jicama tortillas also played into a diet-friendly, gluten-free trend that was big in the United States right now.
"We have a warehouse in McAllen, Texas and we sell over the U.S. – Houston, New York, Atlanta, here in Florida, it’s also exported to the Canada, and we also send a lot to the West Coast."
AgroLatin sales manager Abigail Marin was also at the show with her team displaying the family company's range of cactus fruit, banana leaves and Christmas fruit tecojote.
"We are reaching the product with non-traditional products, ethnic products, because they have a very specific market niche. For example, banana leaves are used by the Latin community to prepare tamales mainly," she said.
"It's a product that’s around all year but obviously it has its peak periods of interest like December because people like tamales for Christmas.
She emphasized the refreshing taste of cactus pears, which along with their fiber content and the antioxidant properties of red cactus pears, put a lot in the fruit's favor.
"We eat it in the Latin market mainly, Italians as well. You can eat it fresh, or in water, or in margheritas, you can make interesting drinks," Marin said.
One drawback of the cactus pear can be its seeds, but in the tasting displays AgroLatin staff encouraged people to just swallow the seeds rather than chew on them.
The group also sells the Nopal cactus, which is commonly used to make sauces for use on roast meats, or to be accompanied with eggs for breakfast.
"It helps you regulate sugar in the blood, the glucose, and it helps combat cholesterol because it cleans the veins of fat excess," Marin said.
"We put it a lot in juice with pineapple – if you drink that every morning, you’ll feel fantastic.
"And we also have the tecojote which is also a very traditional product for Christmas for the 'ponche' - it’s a drink of several fruits but you can’t leave out tecojote because it gives a special touch, makes you feel it’s Christmas time.