Produce production in the Texas Rio Grande Valley has greatly diminished in recent years with the advent of intense urban development and as the result of hefty competition from Mexican imports. But in spite of fewer produce farms, more fresh fruits and vegetables are rolling out of the Valley than ever before, fueled by the rapid expansion of new hi-tech storage and distribution centers that will serve to move billions of dollars of Mexican produce through Texas for distribution across the U.S.

Last week Chicago-based Don Hugo Produce began receiving shipments of Mexican imports with the launch of their new 160,000 square foot ultra-modern advanced refrigeration facility in Edinburg, the first phase of the one million square foot Rio Grande Produce Park being developed in the Valley.

The opening of the new facility and recent construction and expansion of other cold storage facilities in the Valley gives South Texas bragging rights as the primary point of entry for Mexican food imports, a title long held by Nogales, Arizona.

“According to the latest USDA numbers through the end of January, Texas has jumped to the number one position as the state receiving the largest number of produce imports from Mexico,” reports John McClung, President of Texas Produce Association in Mission.

USDA reports produce import volume in 10,000-pound units and according to numbers released last week, Texas leads the pack with 509,109 units. Arizona was second with 368,459 units and California was third with 320,043 units.

“Having more square footage for docking and cold storage is certainly one of the reasons the Valley has seen and will continue to see greater import volume, but it’s not the only factor. The cost of fuel to move goods across Mexico for distribution in the U.S. has been a driving factor as it costs less to get those imports to Texas and then distributed nationwide than it does to ship to Arizona or California,” McClung says.

Last summer higher fuel prices forced Mexican truckers to pay about $2.26 per mile to move imports through Nogales compared to $1.67 a mile for movement to the Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Texas is the third largest supplier of fresh produce to the U.S., but 60 percent of that is actually made up of imported fruits and vegetables from Mexico.

Add to that the completion of a new Mexican super highway later this year connecting farm rich regions of Sinaloa state, and McClung says the most direct route for Mexican produce will bring increasing amounts of produce imports into the Texas Valley.

A formal ribbon cutting for the first phase of the $100 million Rio Grande Produce Park won’t be staged until this spring, but dignitaries and officials gathered last week to mark the unofficial opening. At that ceremony officials said about 200 permanent employees are expected to be hired to manage and operate the first of nine planned facilities, designed to protect and extend the shelf-life of Mexican produce destined for major markets in Texas and throughout the U.S.

Once complete, the industrial development is expected to provide as estimated 1,000 new jobs to the local economy.

“This produce park puts us on the map because this magnificent, huge operation is one of a kind in our region,” Edinburg Mayor Richard García, who is also president of the Board of Directors for the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, told those in attendance.