Farmer hands with freshly harvested tomatoes. Closeup dirty old hands holding three red juicy tomato

Tomato prices are on the rise. 

Once a year, growers, packers, shippers, distributors and retailers of Mexican produce gather in Southern Arizona to celebrate recent successes and carp about setbacks.  

They did so recently in Tubac, celebrating 75 years as the Fresh Product Association of the Americas. Leader of the group is Lance Jungmeyer who spoke to two major issues of major border impact: the recent tomato suspension agreement and the still-pending US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which would become the new NAFTA, if approved.

Under the previous suspension agreement (which dates back to 1996, when an investigation into whether Mexico growers were importing tomatoes at below-market prices to undermine U.S. growers was suspended by the U.S. Department of Commerce), about 8 percent of the produce was subject to inspection. Under the new agreement—which was opposed by the Fresh Product Association—that number has climbed to 92 percent.

“Prices have already started trending upward with organic tomatoes at 40 percent more than other tomatoes as a reference point,” he said. “We don’t feel the inspections are justified because there’s just not a quality problem with tomatoes coming from Mexico.”

Jungmeyer said even more delays at the border are expected because in March 2020 when the suspension agreement goes into effect, border agents are expected to start inspecting 28 percent of all produce imports from Mexico, up from the current 15 percent. 

Jungmeyer said the Fresh Produce Association was working with the USDA and other agencies to implement the mandated inspections in an efficient and fair way.

As for the progress of USMCA, Jungmeyer said if the agreement isn’t signed by the end of this year, the chances of it happening in 2020 are “very, very small.” 

“But I’ve learned to never rule anything out,” Jungmeyer said. “A lot of politicians have a lot of jobs in their districts riding on this decision and even if they haven’t come out in public support yet, I think they eventually will.”

Convention presenter Britton Clarke lobbies on behalf of the group in Washington where she described the environment as “more contentious than ever.”   

“We’ve been advocating for ratification and believe we have the votes to pass USMCA in the House and we’re asking Speaker Nancy Pelosi to take a vote on it before year-end,” Clarke said. “We’ve done a vote count and think we’re on a path to ‘yes’ and believe every day brings us closer to agreement.”

If numbers drop off and job opportunities diminish, part of the group’s mission is to fill that void. Toward that end, FPAA is working to minimize seasonal drop-off, trying to attract a higher volume of new and different produce during shoulder and off-peak months by offering the availability of a cold-storage inspection facility to maintain a continuous cold chain all the way from harvest to end-buyer.

“If we could supply demand for things like asparagus, avocados, and blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries for Arizona and four other target states, we could see upwards of $48 million in additional sales,” said FPAA’s Georgina Felix. “A University of Arizona study showed a $1 million cold inspection facility like this would have an internal rate of return between 150 percent and 190 percent.”

Keynote speaker Rick Stein, a vice president of the Food Marketing Institute who started his career as a supermarket stock boy nearly 50 years ago, said that there’s a change in how younger people are preparing their food, and is seeing new trends in what people are eating.  

“You have this whole plant-based protein issue now where people can get their protein from produce and vegetables,” he said. “I remember when my spaghetti used to come with pasta. Now it’s served with zucchini noodles.”