An Uneasy Throne: Nogales Still King of Tomato Imports but Contenders Advance

December 14, 2017
Vera Pavlakovich-Kochi, Ph.D., Senior Regional Scientist and Associate Professor of Geography and Regional Development

Geography, history, familial ties, and the ingenuity of border populations have all contributed to the development of a unique trans-border network of growers, landowners, importers, and distributors that, for more than a century, has served as the main conduit for the supply of fresh winter produce to North American consumers. Mild winters helped the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa become the major growing regions for winter fresh produce, and their proximity to the U.S-Mexico border made Arizona the major entry point for tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, squash and green beans into North American markets. Even before NAFTA was implemented in 1994, Arizona’s border town of Nogales – with barely 20,000 residents – was already a major center for fresh produce importers and distributors. About 70 warehouses line Nogales’ Frontage Road handling Mexican fresh produce delivered by truck through the Mariposa border port of entry (BPOE) in Nogales, Arizona. In the last ten years, however, this constellation of key factors appears to be changing profoundly. What follows is a discussion of information shedding light on these new developments gathered from trade data.

Tomatoes through the Nogales Port [1]: No. 1 Vegetable

Tomatoes have traditionally been the leading winter vegetable imported through Nogales from Sinaloa and Sonora and on average account for 40% of the value of all vegetables imported through the port. Year to year fluctuations in this share commonly reflect unusual weather conditions in growing regions and/or the restrictions invoked by the competing Florida growers regarding quality, size, or minimum price of Mexican tomatoes.

In 2016, $660.2 million worth of tomatoes entered the U.S. through Nogales port. Even if considerably less than the peak value of $758.1 million from 2011, tomatoes remained in the top position among imported vegetables through Nogales and kept the Nogales port in the leading position ahead of fast growing Hidalgo and Laredo ports in Texas. Yet, the latest data undeniably suggest pronounced changes.

Tomatoes through Texas’ Ports Hidalgo and Laredo: Catching Up Fast

In last ten years, two Texas border ports of entry – Laredo and Hidalgo (which includes Pharr/Mc Allen) – have shown an extraordinary upswing in handling the import of Mexican tomatoes. In 2006, Nogales port facilitated $521.4 million worth of imported tomatoes, which was more than five times the value imported through either Hidalgo or Laredo. Ten years later, this gap had shrunk substantially. By 2016, imports through Hidalgo ($490.7 million) and Laredo ($427.5 million) had caught up dramatically with Nogales’ $660.3 million worth of imported tomatoes (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Port Level Import of Mexican Tomatoes ($mil)

Figure 1. Port Level Import of Mexican Tomatoes ($mil)

Source: AZMEX based on USA Trade Online 

Tomato Growing Regions, Seasonality, and the Impact of Greenhouse Tomatoes

Aside from “pure” market forces, three things seem to play major roles in determining the location where tomato shipments enter the United States: (1) growing regions and their proximity to the U.S.-Mexico BPOE; (2) growing seasons; and (3) greenhouse-grown tomato production which now successfully defies both geography and climate conditions.  

Tomato producing regions concentrated in nine states. Major tomato growing regions that export tomatoes to U.S. markets are located in a handful of Mexican states. The major tomato growing states in Mexico on the Pacific coast side are Baja California, Sonora, Sinaloa, Jalisco, Michoacán, and Colima; in central Mexico are the states of Mexico and Queretaro; and in the north the border state of Chihuahua.[2] Sinaloa is still the major tomato producer, and until recently (before the Durango highway was completed) had the shortest time/distance to the U.S. through the Nogales port.  As expected, Baja California, Sonora, and Chihuahua grown tomatoes utilize the closest ports, i.e., Otay Mesa in California, Nogales in Arizona, and El Paso, in Texas. Geographic location of other tomato growing states is largely responsible for shipments through Texas border ports (Figure 2).

Figure 2Tomato (and Other Fresh Vegetable) Growing Regions in Mexico 

Source: Fresh Produce Association of the Americas

The Nogales port has the most pronounced seasonality in tomato importation. Open field grown tomatoes still account for the largest tonnage of imported tomatoes and are produced during two growing seasons: the winter season, from October through May; and summer season, from May through October.[3] The state of Sinaloa – the principal source of tomatoes imported through Nogales -- is not only the major tomato producer, but also the major winter season producer, which is clearly reflected in pronounced monthly fluctuation in imports that distinguishes Nogales from other ports. In the winter season, Nogales port facilitates the largest import of tomatoes far above any other port along the U.S.-Mexico border (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Nogales Port Dominates Import of Winter Season Tomatoes

Figure 3. Nogales Port Dominates Import of Winter Season Tomatoes

Source: AZMEX based on USA Trade Online

This seasonality of tomato production in Sinaloa (and Sonora) causes the pronounced slowdown in importation through Nogales during summer months.  Growers in Baja California, Michoacán, Jalisco and other states are the main producers of summer season tomatoes this drives the summer season importation pattern with the Nogales port on the bottom among U.S.-Mexico border ports (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Import of Summer Season Tomatoes from Mexico ($mil)

Figure 4. Import of Summer Season Tomatoes from Mexico ($mil)

 Source: AZMEX based on USA Trade Online

More consistent tomato production is made possible by greenhouse cultivation. Although greenhouse cultivation still represents only a small portion of total tomato production, the increasing volume of tomatoes coming from greenhouse cultivation is considered by many analysts to be the single most significant trend in tomato growing in Mexico.[4] Aside from raising yields, greenhouse cultivation enables producers to grow tomatoes virtually the entire year, and is also less restricted geographically. In combination with other factors, the greenhouse-grown tomatoes have certainly contributed to the rapid increase in tomato shipments through Hidalgo and Laredo ports.

Peppers Keep Nogales on Pedestal

The importance of peppers continues to grow. Among 60-plus varieties of peppers grown in Mexico,[5] bell peppers are on the top of varieties grown for export. Main growing areas are in the Pacific coast states, as are tomatoes. With minor annual fluctuations, the importance of peppers has been rising in both the dollar value and as percent share of the total value of all vegetables imported through the Nogales port. In 2016, $577.1 million worth of peppers was imported compared to $225.6 million in 2003. The share of peppers also increased from less than 20% in 2003 to 28% of all imported vegetables through Nogales port in 2016 (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Nogales Port: Import of Mexican Tomatoes and Peppers ($mil)

Figure 5. Nogales Port: Import of Mexican Tomatoes and Peppers ($mil)

 Source: AZMEX based on USA Trade Online

Nogales is solidly in the lead (for now). Mexican-grown peppers, as reflected in the dollar value of imported quantities, are becoming more popular in the U.S. The ports of Hidalgo and Laredo are certainly increasing their share of imports, but for now they are still trailing Nogales (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Port Level Import of Mexican Peppers ($mil)

Figure 6. Port Level Import of Mexican Peppers ($mil)

Source: AZMEX based on USA Trade Online

Like tomatoes, peppers grown in open fields are a winter season vegetable, which fact is visible in  the distinctive seasonal variation in imports at the Nogales port, ranging from far above all other major ports in winter months to below their levels in summer (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Port Level Import of Mexican Peppers, January-December 2016 ($mil)

Figure 7. Port Level Import of Mexican Peppers, January-December 2016 ($mil)

Source: AZMEX based on USA Trade Online

The increasing use of greenhouses in pepper production smooths out seasonal variations and allows for year-long harvest, as well as the production in areas previously limited by physical conditions. Thus, similar undercurrents are also at work in pepper production that may eventually affect Nogales’ position in this sector relative to other ports.

Undoubtedly, the data presented here show that changes are underway in fresh vegetable production and the pattern of these imports to the U.S. from Mexico. While they suggest the relative repositioning of the Nogales port, which was once the dominant gateway for Mexican fresh produce entering the U.S., it does not mean that the volumes or dollar value of imported vegetables through Nogales port are decreasing.  On one hand, the relative repositioning is simply a result of combination of objective factors (location, proximity of border, transport connection, open field-vs.-greenhouse production) that favor faster growth of Texas border ports. On the other hand, however, a question still lingers, what else is happening that makes Texas ports grow faster?  

Anecdotal evidence and available information that importers/distributors provide on their websites suggest an interesting, and after all, expected adaptation to seasonality which is so typical for importation of fresh produce through Nogales. A number of Nogales-based distributors also have offices in Texas ports where they operate in summer months. Based on some earlier research,[6] this is not totally a new thing. What appears to be new is that it is more prevalent than before. This may be not only an adaptation to seasonality, but also a purposeful business strategy in response to the opening of new growing regions, improved transportation connections, as well as increasing competition. Until we have hard data about actual facilitation procedures at different ports of entry, including physical infrastructure and waiting times, this will remain as yet another possible explanation.


[1] Nogales port includes three border crossings: Mariposa, De Concini, and Morley. Import of Mexican fresh produce is facilitated through the Mariposa crossing.

[2] Fresh Produce Association of Americas. (2017, December). Retrieved from www.freshfrommexico.com

[3] Tomato production in Mexico. (2017, December). Retrieved from www. geo-mexico.com

[4] Tomato production in Mexico. (2017, December). Retrieved from www. geo-mexico.com

[5] Serrano Pepper. (2017, December). Retrieved from http://worldcrops.org/crops/serrano-pepper

[6] Pavlakovich-Kochi, V., A.H. Charney, A.C. Vias, and A. Weister (1997). Fresh Produce Industry in Nogales, Arizona: Impacts of a Transborder Production Complex on the Economy of Arizona. University of Arizona, Office of Economic Development.

Photo of colorful cherry tomatoes over wooden background courtesy of Shutterstock.