By Pierson Geyer, NARBA Vice President, Agriberry Farm & CSA, Hanover, VA
When I arrived in Guadalajara the day before our three-day tour of Mexican caneberry production, the differences were what jumped out at me immediately. A foreign language bubbled all around me, with sporadic word recognition in a sea of confusion. A billboard displayed three burgers for $29 at McDonald’s. Nearly every home, business, and industrial area had some level of security fence around it, ranging from razor wire to spikes in clay. At our first farm stop, I marveled that they could grow blackberries in a climate that never had anything resembling our winters and that high bush blueberries could be producing commercial yields only nine months after being planted. With so many apparent differences I was nervous about how much overlap in knowledge I would find during the tour.
These concerns started to melt away as I got to ask questions of the various tour hosts through our excellent translator. I assumed that since the U.S. sourced such a dense immigrant labor population from this country they surely had plenty of trained and engaged workers at all the farms in the area. Not so — labor was one of the chief concerns expressed at many of the farms we visited. Getting the word out and having reliable bodies in the field was a big issue. Most farms had a dedicated crew that formed the core of their labor but when harvest was going strong it was tough. Many used piece-rate payment systems that pay based on how many flats or buckets harvested instead of an hourly wage. Because of this, farms would struggle with workers leaving unannounced as soon as a neighboring farm hit their peak production period, when buckets could more easily be filled. Farmers also said that over the last decade or so they noticed less and less motivation to work in the fields, which seems to be a common trend stateside as well.
Each and every farm we visited had a clear food safety plan in the place. Signs for no eating or smoking in production areas, reminders to wash hands before shifts, safety warnings, and hairnets were commonplace at every stop. I would say the commitment to food safety was even higher than at many farms I have visited in the U.S. Since nearly all of their sales are exports they want to be sure they are in compliance with all international food safety standards. I was very impressed with the level of visibility of food safety and quality control signs. Every farm used a quality control station to grade fruit after harvest. These stations were in full shade and they generally had regular pick-ups from a refrigerated truck on a 30 minute lap. With the shelf life expectation they had for these berries maintaining a good cold chain was key. All of these things had a similar analog back on my farm and I’m sure many other farms around the country.
While I wasn’t used to seeing a 60-acre raspberry farm — in Virginia you are lucky to see more than an acre anywhere — or blackberries in full production in mid-February, I realized that we were all just using different languages to talk about the same things. Mexican producers faced labor challenges, SWD pressure, and food safety concerns; farmers were mindful of their yields; and everyone was interested in the successes and challenges facing others in this industry. The culture of learning from one another permeated the event, including among those of us in the vans. At every stop we were met with friendly faces and informative presentations regarding their systems, hoping to get feedback while showcasing a high commitment to quality.