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Rising Fruit and Vegetables Imports from Mexico
May 16, 2018
Americans are consuming more fruit and vegetables imported from abroad. About half of US fresh fruit (53 percent in 2017) and almost a third of US fresh vegetables (31 percent in 2017) are imported.
Mexico supplied 48 percent of the imported fresh fruit and 68 percent of the imported fresh vegetables in 2017. The US imported $11.6 billion worth of fresh produce from Mexico in 2017, including 53 percent fruit and 47 percent vegetables.
Averaging several years of data removes year-to-year fluctuations and makes comparisons over time more reliable. Between 2012 and 2014, the US imported fruits and nuts from Mexico worth $3.8 billion a year; by 2015-17, Mexican fruit and nut imports increased over 55 percent to $6 billion a year.
Avocados worth $1.9 billon a year were the leading Mexican fruit import between 2015 and 2017, followed by raspberries worth $555 million, strawberries worth $515 million, and grapes worth $410 million a year. The value of raspberry imports from Mexico rose over 110 percent between 2012-14 and 2015-17, and the value of avocado imports was up 85 percent in this period.
Vegetable imports rose 20 percent between 2012-14 and 2015-17 to $5.8 billion a year, led by fresh tomatoes worth $1.8 billion, bell peppers worth $565 million, and cucumbers worth $460 million a year. Other significant fresh vegetable imports were asparagus worth $350 million a year, squash worth $330 million, and onions worth $315 million. The value of onion imports rose 40 percent between 2012-14 and 2015-17 and the value of asparagus and bell peppers each rose 35 percent.
Will the share of Mexican fruits and vegetables in the US continue to increase? Mexico has the land, water, and infrastructure to produce fruits and vegetables for export, but is running out of local labor. Most of the farms that grow fresh produce to export are in northern and central Mexico, where a combination of slower population growth, improved educational systems, and expanding nonfarm job opportunities means there are fewer workers available to be seasonal farm workers.
Mexican farmers rely increasingly on internal migrant workers to fill seasonal farm jobs, recruiting often non- or limited-Spanish speakers from mountainous areas of nearby states or in southern Mexico to harvest vegetables and pick berries. Recruiting workers from far away is risky, as naïve workers may be exploited by recruiters who charge them fees or make false promises.
Many farmers ask their current workers to bring friends and relatives, while others send recruiters to areas with workers and arrange for their transport to housing on or near their farms. Echoing US farmers who compare Mexican-born and US-born farm workers, Mexican farmers praise the work ethic of internal migrants from the southern states, saying that they want “to work” and willingly accept overtime and Sunday work schedules, while local workers may work one day and not the next.
The labor challenge for Mexico’s export-oriented farms may be similar to that in the US, viz, where to find seasonal workers to harvest their crops. Fewer workers and rising wages are increasing the interest of farmers on both sides of the border in labor-saving machines, so that Mexican and US producers of fresh fruits and vegetables may adopt labor-saving machines at the same time.
The chart below highlights the fact that, even though the US imports about $6 billion worth of Mexican fruit and almost $6 billion worth of vegetables, the value of fruit imports has been rising much faster than the value of vegetable imports, with raspberry imports rising over 100 percent and avocados and strawberries each rising over 80 percent between 2012-14 and 2015-17. Vegetable imports rose by almost 20 percent, and bell pepper imports were up a third.