Challenges in Chihuahua
Growers face numerous challenges, including frost, hail, drought, a lack of winter chill, and a tight labor supply.
White hail netting protects trees at the Federico Hagelsieb orchard in Guerrero. Fruit on trees under white net mature earlier and are larger than on trees under black netting, reports orchard manager Jorge Suarez.
A group of 50 members of the International Fruit Tree Association traveled to the Mexican state of Chihuahua this summer to take a close look at the tree fruit industry there. Chihuahua is Mexico’s major apple-growing region and also produces peaches and cherries.
A mile high on a desert plain in northern Mexico, families with names like Robinson, Johnson, and Jones are battling nature to produce crops such as apples, peaches, and jalapeños.
Under the intense glare of the early summer sun, the state of Chihuahua (whose name is thought to have come from an Indian word meaning “dry, sandy place”) looks inhospitable. But its central plain, scarred by bone-dry riverbeds and bordered by the Sierra Madre Mountains, is the hub of Mexico’s tree fruit industry.
Dr. Carlos Chavez, an orchardist and nursery owner, said the first apple trees were planted in Chihuahua at the end of the seventeenth century by Catholic missionaries. Commercial orchards were planted in the Casas Grandes area in the late 1800s by Mormon colonists from the United States, and in the Cuauhtémoc area in the 1930s by Mennonites from Canada.
Chihuahua has about 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) of orchard and produces about 60 percent of the Mexican apple crop. Fresh apple production has averaged just under 16 million boxes over the past five years. Between 25 and 30 percent of the crop is processed into apple juice concentrate, depending on the extent of frost and hail damage.
Because of the high elevation and extreme fluctuation between day and night temperatures, spring frost is a common threat. Growers used to use diesel-fired smudge pots for frost control, resulting in a smoky environment and high fuel bills. Since about 1990, growers have been using undertree sprinklers, with outstanding results. Robinson said the water comes out of the wells at a relatively warm temperature, which generates a significant amount of heat before it freezes. “It’s a tremendously successful system that doesn’t seem to work in areas where they use snow-fed water,” he said.
Annual rainfall is usually 8 to 15 inches, most of which falls in July and August, but the state has been going through a 14-year drought. Some rivers flow for only one month a year, so irrigation water for orchards is pumped from deep wells. Row crops, such as oats, peppers, corn, and cotton are planted as soon as the summer rains begin and are harvested in November.
Farm labor challenge
Finding enough farm labor is also a challenge, orchardist Dana Johnson said. People living close to the U.S. border would rather go to work in the United States and send back dollars to their families. “We could use more workers,” he said.
Some growers hire migrant workers from southern Mexico and house them at the orchard. The weekly wage for farmworkers is about $60.
Dr. Terence Robinson, horticulturist with Cornell University, New York, led a group of International Fruit Tree Association members on a tour of Chihuahua’s tree-fruit growing areas in June, beginning just over the border in El Paso, Texas.
First stop was Casas Grandes, where Robinson’s great-grandparents settled in the 1890s. They were among between 4,000 and 5,000 Mormons who left the United States around the turn of the century to form seven colonies in northern Mexico.
Chihuahua was a central battleground during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1916, when the revolutionary leader Francisco “Pancho” Villa demanded land distribution and recognition of the peasants in Mexican politics.
In 1911, when a general in the revolutionary army tried to force the Mormon settlers to choose sides, they fled to El Paso, Texas. Only about a third of them returned to Mexico, and of the seven original Mormon colonies, just two remain in Chihuahua today.
The Robinson family was among those who returned to Mexico after fleeing during the revolution. Terence Robinson and his seven siblings grew up in Casas Grandes, where they were taught in both Spanish and English at the local grade school.
Robinson’s eldest brother, John, returned to Mexico in 1968 after attending college in the United States. He grows peaches, apples, and cherries in the Casas Grandes area with his son Eric. Robinson’s younger brother Russell grows cherries and jalapeños for salsa manufacturers in the United States.
Robinson earned his bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University in Utah, returned to Mexico and worked with his brother John for about a year, then earned his master’s degree and doctorate at Washington State University. He joined the faculty at Cornell in 1984, but makes frequent visits to Mexico.
Chihuahua City is the capital of Chihuahua, which is the largest of Mexico’s 31 states. The group visited the orchard and nursery of Carlos Chavez, close to the city, before heading to the state’s major growing region around Cuauhtémoc. Many orchards have been planted in that area in the last decade, and growers compare it to the expansion of Washington’s tree fruit industry from traditional areas into the Columbia Basin.
The Mexican apple industry is still focused largely on Golden Delicious. New plantings of Gala have gone in, as Red Delicious orchards have been removed, but there’s no sign of a switch to other new varieties.
Orchardist Johan Letkeman Wiebe, president of the apple growers’ association of Cuauhtémoc, said there’s no incentive for growers to grow other varieties because most of the apples are sold wholesale through the central market in Mexico City. Buyers buy what they know and are slow to change. “If we produce the new variety, we would have to sell it at a lower price to introduce it,” he said.
To successfully launch new varieties, Mexican growers would have to sell directly to supermarkets, but they don’t have the fruit size supermarkets require. “They only want big apples,” he said.
Cuauhtémoc orchardist Rommel Corral said the Mexican market demands apples with high color. “I don’t see Fuji as an option for the market.”
Guerrero used to be Chihuahua’s most important apple-growing region, but it has slipped to second place, as fruit growing in Cuauhtémoc has expanded. Guerrero is situated in the eastern part of the state, in the foothills of the western Sierra Madre Mountains, at an elevation of 6,500 feet.
Commercial orchards were established in Guerrero in 1876 with varieties such as San Juan, San Miguel, Yokivo, and Dulce, according to Chavez.
Retired fruit grower Guillermo Gonzalez said a dam was built in 1961 to supply irrigation water, but during the recent years of drought, the reservoir has been drying up. About four years ago, growers were allowed to irrigate only once during the season. Many growers now have wells, so they don’t have to depend on water from the reservoir.
Apple production has been declining, partly because of the rising price of diesel, which has prevented growers from heating their orchards to prevent frost. In the lower valley, the risk of frost during bloom is high. Some orchards in the area have been abandoned, Guerrero said, but others have been bought by professional people as investments, and this has led to technical advances.
Guerrero used to be a pear-growing region, Chavez said, but the orchards were hit by fireblight.