Fresh Fresas: Strawberries from Mexico

Octaviano Magaño Ortiz is sitting across from me in blue jeans and a simple chambray shirt, his hands gnarled and his face weathered.

Magaño Ortiz, president of the Consejo Nacional de la Fresa -- or the Mexican National Strawberry Council -- has been picking strawberries in Zamora, Michoacán since 1957. And 98 percent of those Mexican strawberries that he once picked and now oversees as president of the council end up here in the United States. Here's here to explain how that happens.

Packed into clamshells bearing the familiar name of Dole or Green Giant or Driscoll, those Zamoran strawberries are fat and juicy. They're the strawberries you buy in Kroger or Randall's when it's not strawberry season. The varieties grown in the high mountain valleys of Michoacán -- Albion, Festival, Camarosa, Camino Real -- are the same as those grown in California, but the cool, sunny climate and the basaltic soil in Mexico make them far sweeter.

These Mexican strawberries have been on the rise for the past decade after a new method of protecting and irrigating the fruit was instituted by Magaño Ortiz and the individually owned farms in Zamora. The yield increased from 60,000 per acre to a stunning 160,000 to 200,000 pounds per acre. There are roughly 8,000 acres of strawberries in Zamora. And they're grown year-round.

"It's not hard," said Magaño Ortiz in Spanish, our discussion interrupted occasionally when I needed his translator to help me out. "But it's labor-intensive. You must take very good care of them."

And that's where Mexican strawberries differ from Californian strawberries. Although there is far more acreage devoted to the berries in California -- more than 37,000 acres, bearing two billion pounds of strawberries each year, versus the 1.6 million grown in Zamora -- it's the technology that Mexico is using which has made this small town in Michoacán stand out as one of the largest strawberry-producing regions in North America.

"Before, [the strawberries] were exposed to freeze and heavy rains," explained Magaño Ortiz of the old system of leaving the strawberries uncovered and exposed to the elements. "We could only pick the pretty ones to sell."

A popular crop since the 1950s, strawberries only recently took off as a major export for Mexico ten years ago, when tunnel technology and drip irrigation helped increase the annual crop yield.

White plastic tunnels shield the strawberries from the intense heat of the sun while still allowing just enough light through; they also shield them from hard rains, certain insects and pests and other weather conditions. "It can get down to freezing at night," Magaño Ortiz said, "but the tunnels protect the strawberries." From the air, Zamora's valleys shine a bright white from the miles of plastic sheeting stretched across its strawberry fields.

The second component in the Mexican technology is a drip irrigation system that uses only filtered water from wells dug into the local water tables. "Portable water purifiers -- made in Germany -- are used in areas where wells can't be dug," Magaño Ortiz said. "We only irrigate with clean, filtered water."

But what about pesticides? What about fertilizers? I was impressed to hear about the technology that has brought Californian growers and researchers from places like the University of Florida out to Mexico to study the tunnels' effectiveness, but wanted to hear more about what went into the strawberries themselves.

"Liquid fertilizers are used in the soil," explained Magaño Ortiz, but not much. The volcanic soil there needs little extra assistance. And the strawberries are grown through a dual layer of plastic sheeting that helps shield them -- along with the tunnels overhead -- from most pests. Still, Magaño Ortiz said, they do fumigate from time to time. These aren't organic crops, after all.

And because picking strawberries is such a labor-intensive activity, the strawberry farms in Zamora usually employ 780 people per acre. Year round. The money is so good, Magaño Ortiz claims, that migrant workers have returned home to Mexico from California to be one of the hundreds of thousands employed on a farm.

That might be the best part for Magaño Ortiz. "We live in peace in Zamora," he said. "Everybody is working. Everybody makes good money."

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Katharine Shilcutt