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A perfect storm in Nogales creates challenges for border inspections

The lion’s share of all Mexican grape shipments arrives through Nogales in June.

This is always a massive logistical challenge, as the grapes, by law, undergo quality inspections by U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel.

This spring, Nogales has also endured the added stress of tomato inspections required by a new Tomato Suspension Agreement. That requirement went into effect April 4 and is creating new demand for inspectors, independent of table grape needs.

Lance Jungmeyer, president of Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, who is working to resolve such industry challenges, noted June 8 that matters this spring were worsened even further because the coronavirus has delayed plans to boost inspector numbers at the Nogales border. He noted that produce inspectors have rights too, and if they feel they may be, or are, stricken by Covid-19, they stay home.

In sum, the Nogales trade is struck this June by a triple whammy. A perfect storm. A heckuva mess.

Jungmeyer said the challenging situation in June has been bad for customers who want to pick-up grapes on time and get product on the shelves at a time when stocking shelves has been especially difficult for retailers.

He noted that large-volume individual grape distributors “can lose up to six figures a day” for losses caused by slowed distribution. “That is big money!” he said. “This is now the third of the last four years with what we call ‘The snowball effect’, with so many grapes to be inspected. You get behind and it is difficult to catch up.”

But the situation became even worse on June 6, when the computer system used by Mexico’s fruit inspectors went down. Produce trucks approaching Nogales backed up for hours until the electronics issue was resolved. Finally, late on June 6, trucks started moving. Special provisions were made to receive 330 trucks on Sunday, June 7.

Without the Tomato Suspension Agreement and long before anyone had heard of the coronavirus, June in Nogales was still an annual “carefully orchestrated miracle” to handle all the grape volume, Jungmeyer said. “It is all a very delicate dance.”

As a result, FPAA plans well in advance with the trade and USDA inspectors, as well as the Arizona Department of Agriculture, which supplies inspectors to boost border numbers. Jungmeyer said the FPAA office in Nogales is regularly a meeting point for the industry and auxiliary support to meet and solve problems. But the coronavirus moved in-person meetings to Zoom. Thus, the clarity and efficiency of communication have been challenged, he noted.

Grape quality inspections are done by lots, so different varieties on one truck may require six or seven types of inspections. Some warehouses have inspection needs as high as 100 lots per day.

Nogales grape grower-distributors have in recent years introduced many new grape varieties, and inspections of these many lots slow the process. Jungmeyer noted that the sweet varieties, such as Cotton Candy, can have high Brix levels “that are off the charts,” and thus may cause inspectors to read that fruit as overly mature, when, in fact, it’s just really sweet.

The FPAA is working with USDA to simplify the grape inspection by lumping the new specialty varieties into one sweet category to expedite the process.

Jungmeyer noted there are three weeks left in the peak of the Mexican table grape deal. “Our carefully choreographed miracle requires even more choreographing. Mondays are high-volume days.” So, after June 8 “there are two more Mondays after this which will have big volume.”

USDA was bringing inspectors from Yuma and Phoenix to assist overloaded workers on the Nogales border, and Arizona was also pitching in with its inspectors.

FPAA is working with Santa Cruz county health officials to get fast Covid testing in place for inspectors and warehouse workers to keep as many people as possible on the front line.

As to the Tomato Suspension Agreement, Jungmeyer maintains the association’s long-standing position that the new rule is a U.S.-imposed trade barrier to discourage competition for U.S. tomato growers. But the realities of tomato inspections are solidly in place for the foreseeable future, serving what Jungmeyer says are U.S. producer interests “by slowing down tomatoes and all else” coming from Mexican fruit and vegetable fields.

Is this compounding problems in Nogales this June?

“Heck yes, it would have been easier” without the tomato burden, Jungmeyer exclaimed. “This is very unfortunate. Very unfortunate.”

Jungmeyer points to USDA estimates for the projected number of inspections needed in Nogales on a monthly basis in 2020. In January, February and March, the number of Nogales inspections was well below 2,000. But in April, when the tomato inspections commenced, total inspections shot to almost 6,000. Tomatoes, grape tomatoes and plum tomatoes accounted for 5,000 of those inspections.

At the Nogales border in May 2020, grape inspections alone came almost to 5,000. There were roughly 2,800 tomato inspections, with total inspections approaching 8,000.

This June, Mexican grape inspections are estimated to reach almost 11,000. Primarily because of tomato volume, more than 13,000 USDA inspections are expected to take place in Nogales in June.

In July 2020, the USDA estimates that total Nogales inspections will plummet to about 2,000, with grapes accounting for about two-thirds of the total and tomatoes most of the other inspections.

From August until December 2020, Nogales tomato inspections are predicted to rise from an August total of about 1,000 to about 1,800 by December. Mexican avocados and oranges will be a very minor part of November and December totals.

Jungmeyer noted that tomato inspections will remain in place as 2021 begins, so Nogales’ demand for inspectors will again be high in the heavy-shipping winter months of next year.

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