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Malena optimistic following tomato roller coaster ride

RIO RICO, AZ— “Normality” should fall into place as the Mexican spring tomato deal arrives, according to Jim Cathey, sales manager of Malena Produce. This normal would resemble the smooth end of a radical roller coaster ride.

Overall, this season in the Mexican tomato business, “will be more like 2016, vs. 2017 or 2018,” Cathey said, adding that this tomato deal will have “ups and downs and movement in the market.”

In 2017 and 2018, there was an abundance of Mexican tomatoes throughout the season.

Jim-Cathey-MalenaJim Cathey MalenaCathey noted on Jan. 21 that this season’s “ups and downs are in full swing. The whole town is flush with tomatoes right now.”

The early Mexican tomato deal was characterized by “cold, cold, cold,” he said. “We will be off by 15 or 20 percent on rounds from abnormally cold weather.”

He added that when an extremely unusual snowstorm hit Nogales during the New Year’s holiday “they also had a lot of problems down there. It delayed things a lot. In September, the deal was delayed from the start. Now, normality is around the corner.” He estimated that they should have been caught up with this flush by Feb. 10.

Going into the latter part of January, Mexican tomato prices were high, and Nogales distributors had not set up ads with their retail partners. Then a warm growing period brought on a flush of supplies, “which was the formula for a weak market,” said Cathey. “But this won’t last forever. It’s the same with Bells. They were really high, but we just had a flush of Bells, as well.”

Now, headed into the spring deal, “We are pretty optimistic,” Cathey said.

Tomatoes will be a very large volume commodity for Malena this year, with a new arrangement with a major Mexican grower.

As to other Mexican vegetables, Cathey said, “we are into everything. This includes squash, elongated red peppers, slicer cucumbers, as well as pickles, and Kabocha.

The firm began seasonal shipping of European cucumbers in November. That deal was to end in early February.

Eggplant has long been a Malena specialty, shipping eggplant 12 months a year. Since last fall, “it’s the same as everything else. It was a slow start. The volume is just now starting to increase with us and the industry,” he said. “Markets are extremely good. Eggplant has been good since we started (late last fall), from the market point of view. With the winter eggplant deal beginning in December, we were two to three weeks late on volume, but we have volume now.”

Cathey said that the best run for eggplant is before Lent, when Catholics use eggplant for a meat substitute.

Overall, he said contracts are up and running, supporting the program and volumes they have.

“The markets have been high,” he said. “Some are coming off to a more normal price for the vegetable deal, at a pricing level that is good for everyone — the grower, consumer and retailer. We all need for tomatoes to get back on track. We still have five months to look forward to. We have worked through everything. I’m really excited about the next few months. It’s a really good year for Malena.”

Cathey noted that Malena is seriously looking at starting a Roma program this coming summer. “We want to be more involved in the summer, shipping through Nogales and Texas,” he said.

Cathey said that most of Malena’s summertime volume is shipping contracted eggplant, especially through Texas. “We know there is demand on the East Coast for our eggplant,” he said. “We will expand that this year, with Nogales focused on the West Coast.” The challenge with that program is summertime eggplant competition with growers in California and Baja. “It’s hard to bring anything through Nogales that is not presold. In the winter, it’s OK to work on the open market,” he said.

There has been a general industry perception that Texas distribution had an advantage over Nogales in shipping to the upper Midwest and central Canada. “Now buyers there don’t see that big advantage like they did originally,” said Cathey. “It’s just as easy to buy here as in Texas. So, there are some people coming back to Nogales for the guys who were not already set with warehouses in Texas.”

That said, Cathey indicated that Malena will expand in McAllen, TX, “but, at least in the near-term, Nogales is our primary distribution point. For the next few years we’ll grow in both locations. We’ll have an overall increase in summer shipping, but this year the increase will mostly be in eggplant.”