COLÓN, Querétaro, Mexico — From a stretch of highway in the heart of Mexico, rows of white rectangular structures appear against a backdrop of hills and low brush. A few minutes’ drive farther reveals an entry checkpoint resembling that of a military base.
This formidable entrance opens to what could be the prototype for Mexico’s agricultural future — Agropark, a government-sponsored high-tech greenhouse cluster that spans more than 700 acres. Inside, companies grow specialized products for export using state-of-the-art technology.
Agropark resembles a small city. Its network of gravel roads weaves among a maze of 140 giant greenhouses (with 180 more yet to be built) bearing flashy logos. Eleven companies — 10 from Mexico and one from Holland — grow tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers inside the glass-walled buildings. Ninety-five percent of their product, over 75,000 tons a year, is exported to the United States and sold by companies such as Walmart and Costco.
The Agropark in Colón, Querétaro, is the first of its kind in Mexico, but the government is investing in similar projects around the country — all facilities that provide space for companies to grow specialized products for export. A network of these strategically placed agro-industrial parks could be a key part of the future for Mexico’s agriculture industry, which has changed drastically since Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.
“The idea is they want to have different Agroparks around the country, to have a web of Agroparks,” said Luis Alberto Ibarra Pardo, the director of FOCIR (Capitalization and Investment Fund for the Rural Sector), the government agency that initially invested in Agropark’s construction. “(The) thing is to know where to locate those Agroparks to have good connections with the rest of the country, with the export markets, and also to take advantage of the local competitive advantage of the regions in order to produce more efficiently in the region.”
But the future of Agropark expansion could be affected by the renegotiation of NAFTA that began in August between the United States, Mexico and Canada and is expected to conclude within a year.
President Trump has called NAFTA “the worst deal ever” for the U.S. and he has vowed to back out unless it can be renegotiated to reduce trade deficits. To accomplish that, Trump during his campaign proposed a 35 percent tariff on goods imported from Mexico.
Acres of crops
Alfonso Meneses Melo, Agropark’s administrator who has been working here since it opened in 2006, doubts that Mexico’s agriculture industry will be affected much by the renegotiations. He said the United States depends on Mexico’s cheap labor and bountiful harvests to stock American stores.
The U.S. has become highly dependent on imported produce from Mexico. According to a 2013 report funded by the Santa Cruz County (Arizona) Economic Development Corp., 120,000 trucks a year carrying $2.5 billion in produce pass into the U.S. at Nogales. The imports are especially crucial to U.S. consumers during the winter months.
Meneses said central Mexico’s mild weather allows nearly year-round growing. In Querétaro, the temperature rarely drops below 50 degrees or climbs above 85 degrees.
“The advantage that Mexico has over the United States is the climate,” he said in Spanish. “In fact, Querétaro is the best location for these types of crops.”
Eighty percent of the crops produced inside Agropark are tomatoes, 19.5 percent are bell peppers and 0.5 percent are cucumbers. HydroFoods, which occupies more greenhouses than any other company in the park, mainly grows tomatoes. They range in shape and size from the golf-ball sized “Campari” to the beef tomato, large enough to cover a hamburger patty.
HydroFoods’ 50 acres of glass greenhouses, each of which comes with a $1 million price tag, contain verdant rows of plants stretching from ceiling to floor. The company prides itself on its cutting-edge techniques, which include having engineers carefully inspect the color and height of the plants to determine whether they need trimming or watering. In place of pesticides, the company releases pest-eating insects among the plants, and crates of bees expedite pollination. Water is delivered to each plant through a complex pipe system.
The company’s greenhouse workforce is primarily young men — some teenagers — and young and middle-aged women. Meneses said around 60 percent of workers in the park are female, because they are said to be more careful with the plants. “The men have learned not to be so rough, as well,” he added.
Agropark has so far created more than 2,000 jobs in the Colón municipality. Phase II of the park’s construction will add 2,600 more jobs and provide housing for workers. Currently, many workers have to be bused in from outside of Colón – the commute for some is over an hour.
Mexico’s federally set minimum wage ranges from $4 to $8 a day, depending on where in the country the job is. A Mexican agricultural worker’s payment for a day’s work, Meneses said, would be equivalent to what a worker in the United States would earn in one hour. But that salary is generally far higher than the income many small farmers can generate by cultivating their own land.
Rodolfo Martín Hernandez, a manager of quality and safety at Prime Harvest, said he’s noticed a trend: Men and women who have traditionally cultivated their own land in Colón and the surrounding area are instead choosing to work at places like Agropark, which pay better and offer benefits.
Agropark “has a negative effect” on the viability of smaller farms, Martín said in Spanish, mainly because men and women who have traditionally worked in small-scale agriculture are enticed by the benefits – such as free meals, transportation and life insurance