April 24, 2014

Mexico is now open for South Carolina peaches

For the first time in nearly two decades, South Carolina peaches are being sold in Mexico. Titan Farms, based in the town of Ridge Spring, became the first company to take advantage of a new agreement between Mexico and the United States.

The new deal sets strict rules about how the fruit must be grown. The reason is because Mexico banned southern peaches in 1994 due to concerns about invasive pests. After that, only California peaches were imported into the country.

Titan Farms President and CEO Chalmers Carr III said the new agreement is big for his company, “When you look at the domestic supply of peaches, there has been… an oversupply in the amount of peaches produced that are being consumed in the United States,” he said, “Broadening your market base for any agricultural commodity is important.”

A few years ago, farmers from Georgia and South Carolina began reaching out to the Department of Agriculture to ask why they could not export peaches to Mexico. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began testing Southern plants to check for pests and determine if there was any risk those pests could appear. Such standards are necessary under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The process went slowly for three years, as required. However, Chalmers said Mexico became spooked by the appearance of new invasive bugs in California peaches last year. “That put Mexico on ‘red alert,’” Carr said, “Even though those pests were not in the Southeast at all… we were penalized for that situation.”

Carr said the process became bogged down until he was finally able to contact a USDA official stationed in Mexico, who set up a meeting with Mexican officials. The CEO said he made the trip to the country himself to represent the industry in April (government officials are not allowed to do the negotiations). “That’s what really finally moved the ball,” he said.

Clemson University peach specialist Desmond Layne, known to farmers as “Doctor Peach,” said Mexico presents an opportunity for growers to sell fruit that might not make supermarket shelves.

“The Mexican market prefers the smaller-sized peaches, so that’s sort of a double bonus” Layne said, “They want the fruit that, for us, maybe doesn’t earn as much money in our market because of its smaller size.”

Titan, the state’s largest peach producer at 4,900 acres, is also the only one in Georgia or South Carolina currently shipping to Mexico. Carr said that’s because of the hard requirements Mexico puts in place– setting and trapping pests, frequent inspections in the field, and keeping the fruit separate from peaches bound for other locations. Carr said those standards resulted in smaller farms backing out this year.

However, he predicted more companies would be able to take advantage of the new agreement in the future. There is a second possible avenue for those wanting to expand– a fumigation approach. Carr said that requires a USDA-approved facility which does not currently exist in the Southeast. He predicted one would be built before the end of the year.

Another hurdle is shipping the peaches nearly 3,000 miles to Mexico. Peaches are a delicate fruit that have to be handled carefully. For instance, they must be transported at a temperature below 35 degrees to avoid ripening. Since peaches also bruise easily, trucks carrying them must be equipped with air bags to lessen the effect of any bumps in the road on the cargo. Producers are also using special pallets that use corner posts to stabilize the load and prevent it from swaying. Such methods are traditionally used with other higher-value fruit, such as cherries.

“To get peaches a long distance in good quality is very expensive,” Layne said. He said it costs almost $9,000 for tractor-trailer truck to carry peaches from coast-to-coast in the United States, “That’s just the cost of moving the fruit. That’s not the cost that’s in the fruit in terms of growing it, packing it, and everything else.”

The Mexican retailer selling the peaches is responsible for transporting them to the country.