Local importers, along with agriculture and public safety officials, are bracing for a swell in the number of tractor-trailers loaded with grapes crossing through the Mariposa Port of Entry beginning on Monday.
Frigid weather in the grape-growing areas of Sonora delayed the crossing season, which was expected to start on May 6, said Luis Mayer, who operates an offsite inspection facility for Giumarra Co. in Rio Rico.
Tom Wilson, sales manager at Giumarra, said the delay, coupled with a 37.5-percent increase in projected volume, poses challenges for grape importers.
In 2018, Wilson said, 16 million boxes of grapes were imported from Sonora through Nogales. This year, that number is expected to be about 22 million boxes, of which four million had already trickled in by the end of May.
If the projections materialize, it will mean another approximately 2,800 trucks coming across across the border into Nogales this season in a shorter span of time, he said.
The window to import grapes from Sonora is normally about 10 weeks. After that, it bumps up against the growing season in California’s San Joaquin Valley, which starts in July, potentially glutting the market. Wilson anticipated the season this year will run approximately eight weeks from the end of May, since San Joaquin Valley has also had delays due to weather.
“The sales side may be able to make it happen, but frankly, I don’t think it can happen logistically in any shorter timeframe,” Wilson said of unloading the large quantities of grapes now headed this way.
He cited border inspection staffing challenges and the sheer volume of trucks needed to transport the remaining 18 million boxes in less than eight weeks, noting that: “Last year we crossed 16 million trucks in 10 weeks.”
That translates to about 727 trucks a week over 10 weeks in 2018, versus 1,022 trucks a week over eight weeks this year based on the projected volume. That’s an average increase of about 296 trucks per week, or nearly 41 percent.
Shau Booker, head of the Arizona Department of Agriculture in Nogales, said his agency hired 50 new inspectors in time for the 2019 grape season.
“In order to license and train inspectors, you need product. But the grapes came in late,” he said.
While training has been a challenge, the new inspectors “are better and better every day,” Booker said, adding: “We are more than ready” for Monday.
Last year’s force of about 55 inspectors has grown this year to 75, he said. In addition, Booker recruited temporary help in the form of six inspectors from Fresno, Calif., and another one from Phoenix.
Nogales Police Chief Roy Bermudez said he had not been advised of the expected onslaught of grape trucks on local roadways, but would reach out to the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas and coordinate with the Arizona Department of Transportation.
“Obviously, public safety is the main concern and we will do whatever is necessary. That may mean routing vehicles away from Mariposa to (the DeConcini Port of Entry) on Grand Avenue. That, unfortunately, creates long lines and delays,” he said.