H-2A workers in the Titan Farms packing plant cheered when they found their peaches were going to their home country.
For the first time since 1994, peaches from the southeastern United States moved into stores in Mexico in June this year.
The breakthrough came after about five years of work by growers, the peach councils of Georgia and South Carolina, research entomologists, and officials at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Mexican government.
Under the new agreement, growers will conform to a protocol that assures Mexico that no fruit containing plum curculio or oriental fruit moth will enter their country, where they are quarantine pests. Seventeen years ago, Mexico banned peach exports from the Southeast over concerns about these pests.
So far, only Titan Farms at Ridge Spring, South Carolina, shipped peaches to Mexico this year. Titan Farms owner Chalmers Carr III pushed hard for the agreement and was prepared when it came.
“Right now, Titan Farms is the only shipper,” he said. “Last year, everyone was optimistic that we would get this deal through then, and they had lined up buyers. But we never got the market opened up. This year, we were more cautious. Many were not prepared to ship peaches when the market did open.”
The protocol peach growers must follow starts April 1, and at that time, marketing prospects did not look good.
Dan Horton, the peach industry entomologist at the University of Georgia, was involved in developing the data and the protocol for shipping the peaches. He said they cut open more than 100,000 peaches over the last three years during a pilot program to prove that the methods growers use to control plum curculio and oriental fruit moth are very effective.
“Our spray program works,” he said. “There are no worms in the fruit.”
The protocol growers will use includes close-interval spray applications, field sampling, cull cutting, and trapping. An inspector from Mexico will cut more fruit in the packing house before certifying and sealing truckloads of the fruit as it leaves.
Alyn Kiel, a public affairs specialist with APHIS, said the Mexican inspector will certify the fruit, which will again be inspected at the border.
In 2008, she said, APHIS began negotiating on behalf of the Georgia and South Carolina Peach Councils for market access for export of peaches to Mexico. In February, the United States and Mexico signed a bilateral agreement allowing the exportation of peaches from South Carolina and Georgia under a systems approach.
“This bilateral agreement only establishes market access for peaches from South Carolina and Georgia,” she said. “California has had market access for exports of stone fruit to Mexico for many years. The Pacific Northwest also has market access for exports of apricots.”
Even after the agreement was signed, Carr said, it was up to the industry to arrange for a Mexican supervisor to oversee inspections in the two states.
Frustrated by the slow pace of correspondence, Carr asked a USDA official in Mexico to set up a face-to-face meeting, and, with the blessing of the South Carolina and Georgia Peach Councils, Carr flew to Mexico for a three-hour meeting in April to work out the details. An inspector arrived in South Carolina on May 31, and the first loads of peaches left Titan Farms for Mexico in late June.
Carr said Titan Farms will be sending five to ten loads of peaches a week—50 to 100 loads a year—to one customer in Mexico. There are about 1,500 half-bushel cartons per load. Other growers in South Carolina and Georgia plan to export starting next year.
Carr is pleased with the new market because it will take what he calls “underappreciated” peaches. As the marketing season progresses, he said, buyers increasingly pay a premium for large peaches 2.75 to 3 inches in diameter and discount smaller peaches. The Mexican market is less demanding on size.
“There is little demand in mid-season for two-and-a-quarter-inch peaches,” Carr said. “So, this is a whole new market.” Carr noted that growers can also ship peaches to Mexico if the fruit is fumigated in a certified fumigation facility, but no such facility now exists in the Southeast. One may be built by next year, he said.
Irradiation is also allowed under the agreement, he said.
Titan Farms hires about 470 H-2A workers from Mexico. When the first load of peaches left for Mexico, workers in the packing plant cheered, Carr said.