We exit I-19 just north of Nogales, Arizona. There’s some confusion about where to get off the interstate—the signs are misleading and the roads are monolithic. Finally, we exit at East Ruby Road and wait, blinker clicking, in one of two left turn lanes that sweep onto the I-19 frontage road. A Pilot Travel Center looms over the northeast corner of the expansive intersection. To the south, beige tuffs of desert scrub creep toward the black asphalt. There are no painted crosswalks but even if there were, it’s a 50-meter dash across Ruby Road’s six lanes. This is not a place made for people.
Every day between October and April, 3,000 semi-trailer trucks pass through Nogales. Most of them move through this intersection, leaving from or arriving at the Rio Rico warehouse district. In the winter, 70 percent of produce on American supermarket shelves comes from Mexico, and most of that produce gets funneled through here. Although McAllen, Texas is seducing an increasing number of semis—with easier access to the Eastern Seaboard and a state legislature that understands a border functions as a membrane rather than a wall—the Mariposa port of entry in Nogales is still, for now, the Ellis Island of Mexican produce.
Ripe melons are sliced apart on the butcher block in
the Vandervoet warehouse for taste testing.
Photo by Megan Kimble.
October rolls in and the semis rev up. Trucks turn left on the frontage road with nothing in their holds; they leave Rio Rico and turn right, north, to merge onto I-19. A right turn, taken too sharply, and cargo becomes a fruit smoothie splayed over hot asphalt. Prescott Vandervoet tells us that this intersection was expanded a few years back to ease the transition from street to interstate and avoid these costly rollovers. Now, the light stays green for nearly two minutes, accommodating the inertia of 80,000-pound vehicles.
This is a space built for the semi truck.
Prescott Vandervoet works with his father, Brian Vandervoet, the founder of Vandervoet & Associates, a produce distributor and broker based in Nogales. Today, on a Saturday in September, Prescott wears a maroon polo shirt tucked into blue jeans. Loafers, no-rim glasses, bright blue eyes, and he speaks Spanish like a Mexican (he’s the only gringo in his Saturday-night Sonoran soccer league, he says). His father has grey hair and wears wire glasses and a green t-shirt tucked into khaki shorts and talks of the two years he spent in the Peruvian Amazon with the Peace Corps.
Prescott and Brian work with melons. They buy cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, and a new variety called orange flesh from three growers in Caborca, in the Mexican state of Sonora, and, depending on the season, another grower or two in Hermosillo. Growers pluck not-quite-ripe melons off the vine, load them onto refrigerated semis, and hustle them north, to the Vandervoets. The Vandervoets take custody of the melons once they immigrate to the U.S. at the Mariposa border crossing, offer them refuge in a 40-degree warehouse, and then sell them to brokers, who will combine pallets of melons with pallets of mangos or zucchini or tomatoes to sell to retailers or food providers in the U.S.
“The element of trust in this business is so overwhelming it’s hard to describe it,” says Brian. Brian and Prescott work in melons, but a melon is no different than an avocado or an apple if it is rotten. Timing is everything. It starts with a phone call: a grower tells Brian what will be heading north to Nogales, when it will depart, and business proceeds based on that promise. In a system of perishable commodities, there’s no time to negotiate contracts—whoever has the product at any given point in the supply chain holds the value. Millions of dollars are transacted on a person’s word; when words are broken, the supply chain rots. Trust is such a huge part of the business that the English word doesn’t quite capture it. Brian and Prescott refer to the glue that holds everything together as confianza.
By October, the Vandervoets ship out 19,000 boxes of melons every day. If each box carries six melons—and most carry more—that’s 144,000 melons a day.
But today, in late September, their warehouse is eerily quiet. The town is eerily quiet—without semi trucks to fill the space, the cement simmers in the sun and the roads seem supersized. Prescott says there are about a hundred warehouses in this town, mostly owned and operated by family companies. The Vandervoet & Associates warehouse is literally small potatoes compared to other operations, some of which deal with hundreds of daily loads—hundreds of semis that arrive and depart every day full of produce.
September is the time to repair machinery and
prepare for the rush of produce that will fill this
warehouse come October.
Photo by Megan Kimble.
Prescott drives us around the warehouse district of Rio Rico. It’s like going on a hike with John Muir—Prescott knows the subtitles of this landscape like a naturalist know the variances of a forest. Signs make statements and buildings have personalities. SunFed’s depot, immaculate and white, wears its name emblazoned under a field of green rows receding into a brilliant red sunset. Below the SunFed name is the slogan: Perfect Produce.
“There’s no such thing,” says Prescott. “There shouldn’t be.”
What is perfect produce? According to the SunFed website, it is “produce of extraordinary quality, flavor, and self-life, resulting in the elimination of shrink from our customer’s workplace.” Elimination of shrink doesn’t sound particularly edible; it sounds like it might refer to quantity, yet quantity is often at odds with quality, as shelf life competes with flavor for a fruit’s loyalties. If the marketing is to be believed, SunFed’s perfect produce is photogenic and sterile and has no bruises or blemishes or dirt.
Prescott says later, “We have a romanticized food production ideal.”
Most of the produce we eat is not perfect—it is just there. At Safeway, the food is there, and it seems like abundance. “Spritzed with morning dew every few minutes, Produce is the only corner of the supermarket where we’re apt to think, ‘Ah, yes, the bounty of Nature!’” writes Michael Pollan. Produce is nature incarnate; or at least, nature on our terms. In our supermarkets, nature is generous.
I’ve never heard of SunFed before, but I wonder if I’ve ever eaten a piece of their oh-so-perfect produce. Does SunFed’s produce lose its “Perfect” brand as it disappears into a greater stream of food, into the branding of Safeway advertisements and Food City coupons? How would I know that I was purchasing a melon distributed by Prescott and Brian—or is all this mid-level branding simply for the benefit of the people who inhabit this world, the space between?
Except for brand logos—Farmer’s Best, Cris-P Produce Co.—the white and silver warehouses, like the mass-market produce they’ll hold, all look more or less the same. The signs in front of the warehouses and on the sides of stationary semi trucks imply food, but, at least today, there’s no feeling of food.
The quiet on these open roads is incongruous with the brilliance of the Tucson Safeway, where the produce section brims with colors. In late September, California and Florida are still producing fruits and vegetables so the Nogales supply chain lies latent. It’s not until mid-October, when the Mexican harvest begins and the Nogales switch flips on, that the proverbial fruit will fall.
A semi truck hangs on to a loading dock, where
produce fresh from Mexico is unloaded and stacked
on pallets in the chilled warehouse.
Photo by Megan Kimble.
The BMV cold-storage warehouse is neither a distributor nor a broker—it’s an “in-and-out” operation, a place to put produce on ice while the details are being sorted out. We walk through an echoing cement corridor of doors and through panels of thick hanging plastic into a freezing room stacked full of mangos. The mangos are rock hard, huddled in this frozen place, worlds away from the sweet sweating tropics, and it smells more like cardboard than fruit. The stacks are taller than my six feet, and the mangos are huge—smaller than a football but similar in size and shape.
While the foreman of the warehouse explains how this mass of mangos ever becomes just one mango in one person’s fridge, I try to calculate just how many are here, right now. Nine giant mangos fit into one box. Each stack is four boxes deep and three wide and 17 boxes tall: 204 boxes per stack. And there are more stacks than seems feasible—more than seem edible, ever. A hundred in this room, maybe 200. Two-hundred and forty-thousand mangos here, and then we leave this room and go into another, and then another, and my math can’t keep up.
The cold cardboard boxes are marked with Freska stamps, the largest mango importer in the world. On the underside of the boxes are instructions: How To Eat A Mango. Evidently, this is a skill we Americans lack. Cartoon hands show us how to wield forks and knifes to cut surgical cross-sections of the thick flesh. Slice it, dice it, with a spoon, on a fork!
We don’t know how to eat these exotic fruits because we are so far removed from their world. In the U.S., mangos appear in neat rows in air-conditioned supermarkets with no contextual cues as to consumption. In the places where these things actually grow, mangos are a part of the landscape and ingrained into a food culture. Here in the U.S., they are foreign artifacts, exotic and, apparently, unapproachable.
I remember March in Nicaragua, where I lived for a year, as the month of sticky fingers and an orange goopy chin. After the rain stopped in December, mangos in March were a holiday in the middle of a long dry season. Ever fond of nicknames, Nicaragua—the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes—had dubbed Rivas, my city, as the City of Mangos. I learned how to eat a mango the Nica-way. It is warm off a pickup truck and so ripe it feels wet: a sweet water balloon. You peel back a cross-section of skin, exposing a strip of raw orange fiber, and you dig in: it’s all or nothing with a mango. You suck the juice and bite the fibers and cover your nose in thick orange goo. The mangos are small enough that two fit cupped into a palm. I ate mango for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that month.
Now, faced with 500,000 mangos in a freezing storeroom, I forget what Nicaragua’s floppy mango trees looked like. It’s only later, de-frosting in the desert sun, that I think of the thick scribbles of their dark shiny leaves, the bowing branches that bent towards the earth when the world flooded in October, and the pickup trucks that rocked down dirt roads and announced on loud-speakers: mangomangomangomangoooooo.
Stacks of mangos, one of the most
commonly consumed fruits in the world,
await a buyer in the cold storage BMV
Photo by Megan Kimble.
Every mango eaten in the United States is imported, and four out of every five of them come from Mexico. Mangos account for half of tropical fruit produced worldwide—23 million tons in 2005, up a ridiculous 4,000 percent from the 1960s. The rising demand of mangos in the U.S. might have less to do with a sudden mainstreaming of mango margaritas than the increasing number of Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. who know how to cook with and prepare mangos—who remain connected to their homelands by buying the imported fruits of their tropical soils.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture trains and employs Mexican inspectors to examine all mangos bound for import, to certify that the mangos will be safe and law-abiding immigrants once they cross the border. These regulators are looking to confirm that orchards comply with phytosanitation regulations—the rules for plant hygiene. Historically, phytosanitation regulations reflected the American neurosis for all things sterile, privileging the danger of fruit flies over the danger of pesticides. That is, until ethlene dibromide, a popular insecticide used in mango orchards, began appearing in our drinking water in 1987 and the USDA banned its use. When chemicals were taken off the table, the USDA went another way in search of cleanliness: they started drawing baths for the mangos. Really hot baths. Now, before they are allowed to cross the border, all unpacked mangos are submerged in four inches of 115-degree water for 90 minutes to kill any and all unwanted hangers-on: the bacteria and fruit flies that might infiltrate our own agricultural system.
According to Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, when these USDA-employed, Mexican inspectors—the inspectors who travel to mango orchards in Sinaloa and Guerrero to certify phytosanitation standards—were asked about the purpose of their job, they responded, “To protect the American farmer.”
It’s the same physical mango on both sides of the border, but between the two are often two weeks and a handful of federal agencies. It’s the same mango, but shivering in the cold storage, I see only the disconnect. I wonder: something must remain between the nodding mango trees of Mexico and Central America and these mangos—these cold fists of fruit maturing in the middle of a desert. Maybe it is memory, the memory of a sweet mango on a humid night. Or maybe it is the idea of fruit, more than its taste—the idea of fertility, of abundance. Maybe it is the fruit’s connection to a lush place full of nature’s bounty that makes this freezing fruit, underripe and trapped in a cardboard display case, worth its cost.
A row of semi trucks guards an expanse of parking lot at the
Nogales Pilot Travel Center.
Photo by Megan Kimble.
On a Monday in the first week in December, the Pilot Travel Center brims with activity. At least 50 semi-trucks are parked outside, the long cargo holds lined parallel to each other, the front of the quiet cabs facing toward Ruby Road, expectant. Inside the travel center, an electronic voice buzzes over the intercom: “Attention shower customer number 35, your shower is now ready. Please proceed to shower number two. Customer number 35, please proceed to shower number two.” At the Pilot Travel Center, $10 buys you a hot shower, a towel, and soap. $24.99 buys you RoadPro’s 12-Volt Portable Stove and 3-Pack Pan combo—a kitchen for the mobile—or, for the short of cash, $1.99 for a shiny hot dog rotating on a metal grill.
This is a world designed for the driver—for the semi truck drivers who shuttle our produce to market.
“Often drivers don’t know what they’re picking up,” says Prescott, surveying the warehouse that is now brimming with melons. A driver backs his semi up to an open door, presents an order slip with a product number to the warehouse office, and a forklift shuttles a pile of pallets onto the truck’s cargo hold. An order is fulfilled, the cargo door slams shut, and the semi rumbles off—to California or Ohio, or to another warehouse in Nogales to pick up another pile of pallets stacked with a different kind of produce.
The Vandervoets import melons, but purchasers don’t just want melons—they want the fixings for a pre-prepared fruit salad or the array of colors required in a produce section. So many retailers turn to brokers—the middle-men in a land of middle-men—who buy produce from distributors in Nogales, like the Vandervoets, and consolidate it, in another warehouse, according to the needs of a specific customer.
Mike Smith walks us around the vast warehouse of Sigma Sales, Inc. If the Vandervoet warehouse is a monoculture of melons, this warehouse, vastly bigger, is a cornucopia of colors. I’m surprised at the mish-mash of produce contained on a single pallet—green zucchini and yellow spaghetti squash and red bell peppers. It looks disorganized until Mike tells me they ship 200,000 boxes of produce out of here everyday. Two-hundred thousand seems like too big a number to wing it.
Sigma Sales is a broker, an assembler of goods. Mike might buy from ten or 15 distributors like Vandervoet & Associates in order to load a single semi truck. No one wants only melons in their produce section, but a front-end retailer, like Safeway, is too busy printing advertisements and price tags to coordinate with a dozen different distributors, like Prescott, who are themselves too busy coordinating the flow of produce over the border, so brokers, like Mike, manage the space between.
“These are ours,” Prescott says, pointing to a stack of watermelons that bear the logo Monica’s Pride, the brand of one of their three growers.
I ask Prescott about the cheerfully labeled box—why bother with the branding? As it turns out, I can’t know if a melon or zucchini that I buy at Safeway passed through the Vandervoet warehouse. I don’t know if I am buying Perfect Produce distributed by SunFed or if my melons are the pride of Monica, grown in Hermosillo. At most supermarkets, I might not even know what country my produce began in. For all the middlemen watching over our food—ensuring its safety as it navigates its way north in the food stream—the produce finally loses its identity when it hits the last step: when we encounter it. At Safeway or Kroger or Food City, when store managers stock their shelves, the boxes denoting origin and label and hard-earned brand reputation are discarded in the back, crushed and baled for recycling.
A Mexican farmworker picks melons for trucking to
Photo ourtesy Syngenta.
At the height of the Vandervoets’ season, when growers are picking and customers are buying, if all goes according to plan, a melon picked at sunrise on Tuesday in Hermosillo is on sale in a Tucson supermarket on Thursday afternoon.
It begins with an agronomist in Mexico, walking through acres of fields, day after day. The endless matt of green, tangled vines covered in beefy leaves is startlingly bright against the arid desert background. Receding rows of thick foliage hide the ripening melons below, which flourish in the hot, dry soils of northern Mexico.
The agronomist walks the fields and inspects the melons, measuring the sugar content and diameter of the ripening fruits. The growers watch the weather, report to Prescott and Brian, and wait to hire the migrating field crews who are capable of harvesting a thousand acres of food in a week. They watch, they wait, and then they hire.
Beginning at sunrise, pickers stoop over low-lying vines of thick green leaves and sling melons into burlap bags until noon, when the bulging sacks are thrown into trailers. From noon to 8 p.m., conveyer belts whir under the corrugated tin roof of the open-air packing shed and 50 hands wash, sort, and size melons into boxes. In the darkness of 9 p.m., semi trucks are loaded with melons—1,500 boxes per truck. By 3 or 4 a.m., a truck driver arrives just shy of the Mariposa border crossing near Nogales, and pulls over to sleep for a few hours before the border opens at 10. If the driver gets in at the front of the line, he’s through in an hour and the melons are stacked in the Vandervoet warehouse in another hour.
But produce does not always travel according to plan. Workers pick melons, box and load them onto trucks, and from there, it’s all movement, all reaction. Semi trucks laden with 40,000 pounds of produce rock along on rutted roads through Mexico—most aren’t paved—and they break down. Melons coming from Hermosillo might hit an eight-kilometer line at the military checkpoint at Querobabi and lose eight hours inching forward so that cargo holds may be given a careful or perfunctory inspection.
Trucks arrive at the Mariposa border crossing in a whirlwind of paperwork: a contract from a custom house broker in both Mexico and the U.S., declared load values and weight surcharges and export-import agreements, and all the paperwork must be perfect. On the northern immigration front, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration might just look at the paperwork, but they also might take x-rays or ask the driver to unload part or all of his cargo. Even if the USDA and the FDA wave the truck through, there are over a dozen other federal agencies at the border that might hold things up to take a look around.
Once the paperwork is stamped and the border is crossed, the melons pull up to the Vandervoet warehouse. A beeping semi truck backs up to an open slot, fitting the square of the cargo hold perfectly into the square of the opening. The warehouse foreman slides open the cargo door and the manager zooms over standing on a forklift. He doesn’t pause as he approaches the cargo hold. He darts in, scoops up a stack of eight pallets, and neatly spins into reverse. A quick twist of the wheel and the forklift is in drive again, darting off to deposit a stack of melons in a line in one of four storerooms, where they wait, in the safety of 35 degrees, for five minutes… or five days.
Nogales Community Food Bank truck picks up
produce from Mexico that couldn't make it to
Photo courtesy Nogales Community Food Bank.
“Do you ever eat the fruit?” I ask. We’ve been surrounded by and talking about this food for hours, yet we haven’t approached what is actually in these boxes in the terms of how they function at the retail end—as raw ingredients for future meals. My hands are so cold that I can barely write on my notepad, and the sterile environment does nothing to catalyze an appetite, but still: this is the source of the stuff I pat and contemplate as I wander with my cart around Safeway, and I want to try a melon fresh off the semi-truck. I wonder if it’s even allowed, cracking into these pallets to pull out a single piece of fruit. This food is a commodity, and commodities aren’t for afternoon snacks. (A small sign posted on a steel wall at the Sigma Sales warehouse declares, No Smoking, No Food in Warehouse or Cold Rooms.)
Prescott nods, unperturbed. “The big companies usually just hire someone for quality control, but I come out here everyday and cut into a melon.” He walks over to the nearest stack of boxes, which extends a foot over his head, and hoists one down. He pulls out a translucent green melon—a smooth, cantaloupe-sized melon. “Orange flesh,” he says, and walks over to a wide steel table pushed against the warehouse wall. Using a sleek steel knife, he slices the melon in half, draws a half-moon shape in the flesh, and stabs out a cross section of juicy fruit. He looks at it for a moment and then pops it in his mouth.
I’m relieved to see someone finally eating a piece of this food flow—relieved that there is some aspect in this process that retains the subjective judgment required of texture and flavor, that requires the human action of touch. But the melon that Prescott is eating is a casualty of a supply chain stall. A fruit’s value is a bell curve that builds as the fruit ripens and chains of starches become sweet sucrose—and then dives downward when that sugar turns the flesh to mush. This orange flesh comes from a box stacked in a row of pallets that’s been sitting in the warehouse for over a week, waiting for a buyer. The orange flesh is perfectly ripe now, but by the time it makes it to the shelf in a supermarket or into the supply of a food distribution center, it will be rotten. If the Nogales Community Food Bank has an available truck to pick the boxes up, they’ll go there. If not, these stacks of melons—hundreds of boxes, thousands of melons—will go to the dump.
Prescott sends me home with a box of orange flesh. Two hours later, when I arrive back in Tucson, I slice a melon open. The two halves fall apart with a soft thud, the fruit revealing itself true to its name. A tight fist of beige seeds in the center contrasts with the bright orange flesh. I scoop out the seeds, peel away the rind, then slurp the candy-sweet fruit, bending over my counter so I don’t drip on the floor. Still cool from a ten-day rest in a 35-degree warehouse, the smooth flesh tastes like ice cream melting in my mouth.
When I get up the next morning, as the coffee drips into the pot, I slice another melon in half, ready to dice the sweet orange flesh into a bowl of yogurt. The melon nearly falls apart. The center star of seeds has gone piggly-wiggly. Four seeds have swerved from the center into the flesh, burrowing into the smooth orange like rogue missiles. I break open the last melon and it too is beyond edible—it’s more sugar mush than orange flesh. Not even two weeks after it left the ground in Mexico, the melon lands, with a soft exhale, at the top of my garbage bin.
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