HARLINGEN — Late this year, the Free Trade International Bridge at Los Indios will become a real player in the international fresh produce trade.
After several bureaucratic delays, the cold storage inspection facility at Los Indios will finally be constructed, offering an enhanced inspection process which will keep fresh produce chilly and thus help maximize its shelf life.
Several bridge crossings in the Rio Grande Valley move fresh produce by the ton from Mexico to the United States already, such as Laredo and Rio Grande City.
But it is Pharr which has taken over as the No. 1 transit point for imported fresh produce from Mexico, displacing Nogales, Arizona, which was the decades-long leader in that category until two years ago.
“South Texas is ideally located to be used as a thoroughfare for produce going to the East Coast,” said Raudel Garza, manager and chief executive officer of the Harlingen Economic Development Corp.
“Otherwise, they’d still be in Nogales, right?” Garza asked. “They’re going through Pharr now and we’re going to try to get some of that traffic with our cold storage facility.”
Why it’s a big deal
Growers, shippers, truck drivers and produce managers at your local market know that once an avocado or green pepper or cucumber is picked, the stopwatch starts to tick.
You have a limited amount of time before your vegetable wilts either in a grocery store display or in a consumer’s refrigerator.
To maximize the time between picking and rotting, intense care is taken to ensure fresh produce is babied, and kept precisely at an exact temperature as it makes its way from a farm field in Sinaloa to a family’s table in Albany, New York.
In the industry, it’s called keeping the cold chain intact.
And that’s where the Los Indios bridge is currently at a disadvantage by not having a cold storage inspection facility.
Crossing a border bridge
The border crossing process begins with the arrival of a produce truck from Mexico, with the first inspection conducted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Sometimes, a first inspection is all it takes, and the truck is waved through to a Texas Department of Public Safety inspection station to ensure the vehicle meets U.S. safety standards.
But at times, whether it is done randomly or a Customs agent has suspicions about a produce shipment, the truck is routed to a secondary inspection station.
The driver then arrives at the cold storage inspection facility.
“At that point, the truck will back up into one of these three docks, and they can actually open up the refrigerated space, and back up into refrigerated space,” Garza said. “They lose charge when they open the doors but only for a short time period because then they back up into refrigerated space.
“Right now if a refrigerated truck comes through Los Indios and is asked to go to secondary inspection, they’re pulling the product out and putting it on top of an un-air-conditioned, un-refrigerated space, it’s just an open dock,” he added. “If it’s a perishable product, it’s actually losing shelf life by sitting on that dry dock.”
Since the new docks at Los Indios will be refrigerated, it will help ensure maximum shelf life for that produce on its journey up the East Coast.
Just who is the competition?
“For some time now, concerned voices have been raised by the Nogales fresh produce industry, economic developers, and elected officials who have drawn attention to Texas border ports of entry as they facilitate rapidly increasing volumes of Mexican fresh produce. Those voices reflect a widespread perception that Texas border ports are successfully competing with (or against) Nogales. A major reason, as is widely believed, has been that in comparison with Arizona, Texas border ports of entry are better equipped, provide more efficient and time-saving inspection, and thus reduce the costs of border crossings.”
Vera Pavlakovich-Kochi, senior regional scientist and associate professor of geography, the Business and Economic Research Center at the University of Arizona
Dante Galeazzi is president and CEO of the Texas International Produce Association in Mission.
He, for one, is adamant in his belief that an improved and more attractive bridge crossing for fresh produce in Los Indios is not a threat to Pharr’s produce business.
“Absolutely not, I don’t,” he said. “Pharr is going to continue growing, and Los Indios has an opportunity to grow.”
Galeazzi crunches the numbers when it comes to fresh produce trucks crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on their way north — and the numbers all point to Pharr as the dominant transit point for fruits and vegetables.
From January to June this year, 118,751 loads of produce crossed at U.S. ports of entry between Laredo, Rio Grande City and Brownsville. Of those loads, 95,832 came into the country through Pharr.
Those six-month numbers are already higher than all of last year, when 108,523 truckloads of fresh produce came through the Lower Rio Grande Valley, with 93,352 of them making the move into the United States at the Pharr crossing.
Each one of those fresh produce trucks is measured as a 40,000-pound unit, or a 20-ton load.
By comparison, in 2015, a total of just 23,745 produce and non-produce trucks crossed the Los Indios bridge heading north.
Yet a more attractive — and busier — Los Indios bridge crossing will enhance fresh produce transits for Pharr, Laredo and Rio Grande City, Galeazzi said. Pharr and Laredo have refrigerated inspection stations, while Rio Grande City does not.
“The more bridges, the more entry points that we see here in the Valley, will further develop and increase the infrastructure that allows produce to cross here into the United States,” he said. “The more bridges, the more opportunity, the quicker people are able to cross, the more produce will come here and thus it increases traffic for all of the bridges.”
Timetable at Los Indios
Garza said the HEDC and Cameron County, Harlingen and San Benito officials have succeeded in obtaining federal approvals for the new cold storage inspection facility.
They have managed to overcome an easement problem over routing a separate power source to the new facility.
“So that issue has been resolved, the easement has been recorded, now we’re going through the process of getting the license and actually go onsite and construct the facility,” he said. “Then we’ll actually start construction within the next couple of weeks, and the contractor says that he can go pretty fast as long as weather permits.”
The Free Trade International Bridge at Los Indios is jointly owned by Cameron County with 50 percent, and Harlingen and San Benito with 25 percent each. It generates just over $2 million in tolls and fees each year.
While these entities would see increased revenue from fees generated by higher numbers of truck crossings at Los Indios, Garza said the benefits will be obvious to all concerned parties.
“By moving into a cold storage facility, the shipper will understand that my product is being protected if it goes through Los Indios bridge,” he said. “That’s the gain, that’s the plus — that their product will be safe in a refrigerated space even as the truck is being inspected.
“What makes it great for us is we now have a facility that is equal to or better than the Laredo bridge or the Pharr bridge in terms of being able to meet the needs of the trucker, the shipper and ultimately the buyer of the product,” Garza added.