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FreshMex – Oscar Woltman: Those in Glass Houses

 

ight now, all eyes are on the horizon for Mexican greenhouse companies, and I believe we are becoming more competitive within the North American greenhouse space,” Oscar Woltman, the newest President of AMHPAC and General Manager for produce packing company FreshMex, tells me. “Many Mexican greenhouse operations are now putting out cost-efficient, modern, and very high-quality produce. It’s a sound entrepreneurial approach to look at alternatives, because we do not know what the short term future holds for us. We must prepare for changes—good or bad.”

It’s the dawn of an exciting time for the Mexican produce industry. In the past decade, protected agriculture in Mexico has maintained an exceptionally high rate of growth, with AMHPAC (Mexican Association of Protected Horticulture) leading the charge. From just 600 hectares of protected farmland in the year 2000, to 12,000 hectares as of this year, this increase of over 2,000 percent—coupled with the evolution in consumer preferences for higher-quality, safer produce—has radically changed the industry. Not to mention rising energy costs and the increasingly scarce availability of skilled labor. Oscar is now taking the reins as the association’s President for the next two years, all the while maintaining growth and quality in his role at FreshMex. Most people would be daunted by the task—Oscar, however, thrives on it.

“I see a lot of challenges, but I don’t see anything I’m not confident we as an industry can go up against,” Oscar tells me, just a few months into his Presidential term. “As my tenure will last two years I would like to look beyond that horizon and find out what AMHPAC needs for the following five or more years, and make an agenda to reach those needs. We need to be aware of other countries, stay awake, and make sure we stay up front in quality, social responsibility, and environmental awareness.”

A major part of that social responsibility, Oscar mentions, is food safety—and for good reason. In a country where safely grown produce hasn’t always been easy to come by, working with Mexico’s food safety council, Blindaje Agroalimentario, is something Oscar says is essential to promoting AMHPAC outside of Mexico’s borders. The association classifies food safety in five different levels, giving suppliers a clear and effective guide in how they can reach a higher plane of safe produce.

Oscar Woltman working with his team at FreshMex's Querétaro greenhouse

“Food safety is absolutely necessary if AMHPAC is going to reach more recognition within the retail community as a source of good, reliable, and high-quality produce,” Oscar stresses. “Some of our slogans say, ‘Local for Local,’ but I would dream of something like ‘AMHPAC for Safety, Quality, and Responsibility.’ Whether that is possible or not, only the future will tell us.”

Oscar shares with me that, in total, Mexico exports more than $1.2 billion USD per year in produce, and generates a high number of direct and indirect employment, both of which contribute to the development of the families of the workers and also benefits those who receive taxes.

“Labor and water are scarce resources which need to be considered seriously,” he explains. “If we are not careful we can face wage increases, which will make us less competitive, and we all know what happens then. We need to take the next step towards securing our water sources and make more efficient use of them. We need to constantly look for new quality-improving technologies to keep us at the forefront as a high-quality produce supplier.”

"Our goal is to bring more value to our customers, members, and the buying community."

-Oscar Woltman

AMHPAC estimates that the value of the installed infrastructure in Mexico is over $3.5 billion, and that’s growing exponentially each year. The demand for a year-round supply of fresh produce is driving this rapid growth across Mexico’s agricultural geographies, with 80 percent of all Mexican produce grown under protected schemes destined for export to the United States. In addition, six percent goes to Canada and the remainder stays in the national markets. Each of Mexico’s vast micro-climates allow for diverse mixes of protected agricultural technologies to thrive and create more cost-effective solutions.

“AMHPAC is now in its ninth year and as we continue to evolve, our goal is to bring more value to our customers, members, and the buying community; whether that is through accelerated research and development programs, promoting innovation, building more social responsibility initiatives, or developing more high-performance solutions and opportunities," Oscar says. "The success of this year’s 9th Annual AMHPAC Convention is a testament to our progress and reinforces our drive to become a leading association and resource in the minds of both the retail and supply-side members in our industry.”

Freshmex's AgroPark greenhouse in Querétaro

One way Oscar is doing this is through his own work as General Manager at the vertically-integrated, Dutch-owned bell pepper supplier, FreshMex. FreshMex operates 7.5 hectares of Venlo greenhouses on site, as well as external contracts with Mexican growers, exporting worldwide through its parent company, Levarht.

FreshMex is in the unique position of being situated inside Agropark, an agro-industrial park that specializes in the production of vegetables with high exportation quality, as well as one of our industry’s hubs for ultra high-tech glass greenhouses. Looking at the organization’s growth and results over the past several years, it’s safe to say that Agropark is one of the most ambitious agro industrial projects, not only in Mexico, but beyond. This is due, in part, to its comprehensive vision, efficiency, and environmentally responsible technology. 

“In the beginning, being in Agropark assisted us in navigating through the bureaucratic procedures involved,” Oscar explains. “Nowadays, it allows us to interact with other companies which, as long as you are open to it, generate knowledge. I believe that those companies that cooperate with each other find the Agropark location very useful. It also makes it possible to execute certain programs, such as waste processing, together at a much lower cost.”

In addition to its exportable products, Agropark offers its clients water wells, infrastructure for channeling rainwater, wastewater treatment, paved interior roads, medium power, and natural gas distribution, among other necessities.

As for being a part of the the Levarht Group, Oscar shares his experiences working under the Dutch umbrella, “Levarht allows us to be more competitive than other bell pepper packers, as we are able to generate better financial returns for our produce suppliers in Mexico, for whom we select, pack, and export their high quality produce. We do not need to generate any additional profit on our operations as we are one company from the production to the customer.”

"Some slogans say, 'Local for Local', but I would dream of something like 'AMPHAC for Safety, Quality, and Responsibility."

-Oscar Woltman

Among the other benefits we’ve discussed, Oscar says Levarht brings FreshMex knowledge and experience, vertical integration, less cost, direct sales, higher returns, awareness of a global vision, entrepreneurial approach, and a perfect match between location, season, and clients.

Oscar Woltman working with a team member at FreshMex's Querétaro greenhouse

FreshMex has what Oscar calls a “very human and personal approach” to both its business and its employees. It is not only encouraging personnel to take technical courses but, more so, searching personal development as a key to professional development. 

So, what are the next steps for FreshMex as Agropark and the greater Mexican agriculture scene continues its growth?

“I believe that FreshMex can strengthen its ties with regional producers in order to create a long-term future together,” Oscar says. “I want to work towards a better and more stable workforce for Mexico and FreshMex. I would like to see the company grow within Agropark, and look into continuing our growth in other locations. Seeing and aiding the personal development of people at FreshMex makes me hopeful for the future of our industry.”

And with all industry eyes currently focused on the future of protected ag in Mexico, Oscar is in a prime position to make a difference. I, for one, can’t think of more capable hands.