Mexico is now the largest supplier of imported fresh and frozen vegetables to the United States (Food Logistics). The country exports $20 billion in agro foods per annum, including approximately $10 billion worth of fruit and vegetables. Of that $10 billion, at least 80% is destined for the U.S. (Centre for Food Research and Development). At the very forefront of the industry is La Huerta
(The Farm), founded by Jose Arteaga Campos in 1956. His son, Jose Arteaga Niepmann explains: “My father went out into the fields, with two mules, and began plowing the earth. By the 60s he had already bought the land he had been renting. By the 70s he was exporting fresh veg to the U.S., and by 1975 was exporting frozen vegetables to the U.S. and Canada.”
When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994, La Huerta was one of the first Mexican farms to take full advantage of the myriad opportunities that lay across the border. “We started working with Nestle, then General Foods. At that stage, we produced around 6 million pounds each year.”
“Our philosophy is to freeze within 24 hours of harvesting. If you do not succeed in freezing within that crucial time frame, levels of nutrients and vitamins deplete.”
Jose Arteaga Niepmann, CEO of La Huerta
Today, Jose Arteaga Snr.’s four sons, along with several of his grandchildren, are involved in the family business, producing organic and pesticide-free broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, Chinese peapods, onions, carrots and corn, utilizing the most advanced hot-water bio-technology as well as the natural, microclimactical advantages of farm-processing plants in Aguascalientes, Jalisco and Zacatecas.
Committed to social sustainability, La Huerta provides workers with free healthcare, medication and education. More than 500 scholarships a year are awarded to employees’ children and a modern, affordable children’s daycare center is also available. It even offers employees interest-free home loans.
The company’s exports and sales are going from strength to strength. La Huerta now offers 22 products that sell under the Little Farm and Nutri Verde labels at U.S. grocery chains. It also supplies frozen vegetables to Wal-Mart for its private label lines. Other customers include Nestle USA and Gerber, which is using La Huerta’s spinach for its baby food products. Recently, the company began producing a line for Costco under the Kirkland Signature brand. “We competed with 17 other plants for that account – six from Mexico, one from Europe and 10 from the U.S.,” says Jose Arteaga Jnr.
In 2010, La Huerta received the Very Best Vegetable Supplier award from Nestle. Last year, Wal-Mart awarded La Huerta “for exceptional performance furthering initiatives in sustainability”. It has also been awarded by Safeway as best supplier, and the government for its national supplies and export performance.
La Huerta’s domestic business is thriving, capturing a high percentage of the Mexican frozen vegetable market. The company has expanded its product mix to include other types of frozen goods, i.e. dinners, veggie burgers and onion rings, but frozen vegetables, especially broccoli, remain the mainstay. Broccoli and cauliflower are among the most labor intensive of all vegetables to freeze, but La Huerta, with more than 50 years of experience, has mastered the art of processing: “Our philosophy is to freeze within 24 hours of harvesting. If you do not succeed in freezing within that crucial time frame, levels of nutrients and vitamins deplete. La Huerta’s vegetables are at the peak of freshness by the time they are harvested, processed and shipped to our customers around the world.”
He smiles: “You cannot get fresher – unless you come to Mexico and pick it yourself.”