Berry, Berry Good!

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

If you’ve ever driven across the high plains of central Mexico, you’ve seen the signs. FRESAS con CREMA, FRESAS con CREMA, until you come to a weather-beaten shack that shades baskets of strawberries and coolers with crema on ice. Those strawberries used to make their way down the mountains to Huatulco, to be sold in the streets from impeccably arranged pyramids on wheelbarrows. Thinking “I’m too old for this,” I once chased one up Carrizal, against the traffic, to get a kilo weighed out on the scale that magically appeared from beneath the wheelbarrow. Well worth it.

Now we go to the Carrizal produce markets to buy Driscoll’s strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries – the “everyday” brand in American groceries. The berries come in vented, hinged, “tamper-evident” plastic containers called “clamshells,” stored in the commercial coolers on the back wall at Fruver or Hermanos Lucas.

What Happened to the Wheelbarrows?

They went big-time. Global big-time.

Mexico is now the world’s fifth-largest producer and the third-largest exporter of frutas rojas – “red fruits,” the category for straw-, rasp-, blue-, and blackberries; sometimes cranberries, sweet cherries, and grapes are included in the group (Mexico has begun to produce and export all three of these, especially and surprisingly cranberries, which boast a 50% return on investment.)

In 2019, the “true” berry exports were valued at US $800 million, employed about 100,000 people in – for the most part – stable, well-paid jobs, many of them year-round. Direct employment and another 100,000 “spillover” jobs (jobs indirectly related to the berry industry) were valued at US $900 million, for a total industry impact of US $1.7 billion. In 2016, more than half (53%) of the fruit in America’s markets was imported, and Mexico supplied 100% of those imported strawberries, 98% of the imported raspberries, 95% of the imported blackberries, and 9% of the imported blueberries.

The berry trade basically did not exist 25 years ago. One winter in 1995, J. Miles Reiter, now CEO/Board Chair of Driscoll’s, came to Mexico to attend the wedding of one of the company’s migrant pickers in California. Reiter looked around and thought strawberries would grow well in that environment. He did some testing and trials; when tensions over labor, immigration, and water supply soon started rising in California, Reiter realized that Jalisco could be the solution.

The growing fields of Jalisco are located above 4,000 feet, as they are in neighboring Colima and Michoacán, thus avoiding the severe heat at sea level; since they border the Pacific Ocean, these three states also have ready access to the “cold chain” (refrigerated storage and transportation) necessary to export fragile berries. The volcanic soil in the “fruit-belt” produces sweeter strawberries from the same varieties grown in California. It wasn’t long before acreage used for lower-profit crops, e.g., sugar cane, was being converted for strawberries, then for blackberries and raspberries, and most recently, blueberries.

Berries are also grown in Baja California, with climatic differences allowing for year-round fruit production, although growers in the two regions tend to use different cultivars. Strawberries are still grown all across the high plains, but production has begun concentrating in the fruit-belt states and Baja.

The Berry Biz

Driscoll’s is a good example of how the U.S. berry industry became Mexico’s most profitable agricultural sector – exports of tomatoes, avocados, and hot peppers may be bigger, in terms money and quantity, but profit-wise, berries are the winners.

Starting with strawberries in the 1880s, J.E. (Ed) Reiter and his brother-in-law R.F. (Dick) Driscoll are credited with starting the “Strawberry Gold Rush” in Shasta County in northern California. Ed and Dick got together with a marketing guy, Thomas (no doubt “Tom”) Loftus and developed a sales strategy that included a paper banner wrapping every last crate they sent to market. Voilà, Banner Berry Farm’s Brand incorporated in 1904.

The California strawberry business imploded in the 1940s when Japanese residents, the primary growers, were forced into internment camps during World War II. Next-generation Ned Driscoll and Joe Reiter kept planting strawberries when no one else did, so when the war was over, they were in a position to hire the released Japanese as sharecroppers. They started calling themselves Driscoll Strawberry Associates; the sharecropping model, along with hiring breeders from the University of California’s about-to-be-dropped strawberry program, represent key pillars of Driscoll’s current business model: contract growing and state-of-the-art research and development.

When they had to fend off takeover assaults in the late 1980s, Driscoll’s decided to go bigger, getting out of production and into organizing the industry. They worked on building their brand, developing the clamshell package largely so they could slap a big label on it. They did the R&D to create new varieties of blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries that suited the Mexican climate. They adopted the eminently suitable name of Driscoll’s, Inc.

Still a private, family-owned business, Driscoll’s has over 400 growers in 21 countries on every continent except Antarctica (their berries are probably served on polar cruise ships); they market their wares in 48 countries. Their major competition is half a dozen or so major berry-producing companies (e.g., NatuRipe, WellPict, Dole, SunnyRidge, Sunbelle), which also practice contract growing.

How It Works in Mexico

The Mexican berry business has been profoundly shaped by Driscoll’s (and their competition) – it is a world removed from what Miles Reiters saw when he went to that wedding in Jalisco. Growers are licensed by Driscoll’s, provided with plants developed by Driscoll’s, and required to return all berries from those plants back to Driscoll’s. Growers must meet federal, state, and local food safety regulations for their country, as well as additional U.S. requirements; performance is monitored.

Berries are handpicked, “decanted” into the clamshells, moved into coolers and chilled to 33°F, palletized, and moved on to the “cold chain” serving that location. According to a case study for the executive agribusiness seminar at the University of California at Davis, payment to the grower is based on a quality evaluation of 4 clamshells from every pallet. Under Driscoll’s Pay for Quality program, growers get paid by the tray (8 one-pound clamshells), according to their average quality score over a week’s worth of evaluation. Let’s say the tray sells for $12, Driscoll’s knocks off $2 for the clamshells and takes 18% as its share – that leaves $8.20 for the grower. But it’s not that easy – in order to make growers in a local area compete for quality, the $8.20 goes into a pool for all the area growers, and growers are then paid based on their evaluation score: $8.20 is for average quality, top quality gets a premium price of $8.50, low quality gets $7.90.

Very American business school, pairing pay with worker-generated quality improvement. And very American ag-tech university, all the innovations in “controlled environment agriculture” (CEA).

Using drip irrigation with filtered water and white plastic protective tunnels, strawberry growers in Zamora, Michoacán, have achieved a remarkable increase in production per acre – going from 60,000 pounds per acre to 160-200,000 pounds per acre, as opposed to 54,000 pounds per acre in California. The tunnels protect from the weather – too hot, too cold, heavy downpours, heavy winds – and most pests. A double layer of plastic mulch around the plants prevents soil-borne pests from damaging the roots.

In the San Quintin Valley of Baja California, growers use raised white plastic troughs lined with coco/coir fiber (the “substrate”) to grow their strawberries hydroponically, under screen houses for insect protection. The substrate reduces water use – always in scant supply in Baja – and lets growers reuse and regenerate the hydroponic solution, and of course eliminates soil-borne pests and pesticides to kill them.

Trough production is often called “table-top,” since it puts the plants at a height that eliminates “stoop work” for pickers. (If Baja berry production is to continue, it needs even more technology – current efforts to support wide-spread desalinization will have to come to “fruition”!).

Small is Still Beautiful

But it’s not all Driscoll’s (or Naturipe or Sunbelle) all the time. Alejandro Olvera manages Productores Qzar, a cooperative that grows certified organic blackberries (zarzamoras) in San Juan del Río in the state of Querétaro. There are four members – families or groups of friends – in the cooperative. Qzar’s website (http://qzar.mx/) emphasizes its outreach to the community through eco-agritourism (including U-pick visits), tours by school groups, and support for entrepreneurs. Olvera, in a 2016 interview with the online trade magazine Fresh Plaza, points out that as long as “more and more people want to eat healthy,” they will want to eat berries, and blackberries are a more economical source of antioxidants than blueberries.

Although Productores Qzar is a very small company, with perhaps more interest in social benefits than commercial success, Olvera is well versed in the industry, noting that Mexico’s status as a major exporter of berries requires “dependency on many foreign companies investing in Mexico.” For smaller producers, however, exporting doesn’t really work as their reason for being. “The exporting culture is not widely spread throughout the Mexican population … it is difficult for Mexicans to see themselves as exporters.”

Nonetheless, Productores Qzar does export its berries, on its own scale. “We are growing for companies that are our size, regardless of which country they are in. We love working with family businesses that don’t need a container, but a pallet.” The Querétaro location puts Qzar close to three airports, so it provides its own cold chain for exports.

When Qzar started growing blackberries, the crop was unknown locally. Their success has started other blackberry operations; their focus on community outreach had already brought 6,000 U-pick visits to the fields, and Olvera was predicting 10,000 visits within two years.

Future plans include setting up a hundred acres for new families to join the cooperative. “Just like we did when we started,” he said. “We don’t want to do it through large companies or for large supermarkets. What we want is for families here to work for families in other countries, … knowing other countries and getting other countries to know us.”

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