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From farm to supermarket

USMAJAC, Mexico—Miles of blue agaves, the cactus from which Mexico's potent tequila is made, line the road to this small farming village until you reach Hurst's Berry Farm.

There, high, barrel-vaulted, white plastic tunnels dominate the landscape, protecting rows of tart red raspberries from sun, wind, rain and birds. Pickers with bandoliers of three pails across their stomachs move slowly down lanes of head-high bushes.

They drop into one pail berries that are too ripe to make it across the border to the fresh berry counters of U.S. supermarkets. They'll end up as jam or juice. Into a second pail go firm orange berries that'll be softer and crimson when they reach the supermarkets. Berries picked by mistake go into the third pail.

When he put in berries eight years ago, recalled the farm's general manager, Salvador Alvarez, "They said it was crazy to produce these types of products." It was an unknown fruit that had high startup costs and wasn't native to the region and its harsh climate. Now there are thousands of acres of raspberries in Mexico, some owned by Chilean producers hedging their bets.

For a day's work, Hurst's local subsidiary, Berries Mexico S.A. de C.V., pays workers an average of $11 to $12, twice the local minimum daily wage, said Mark Hurst, the company's president, who's based in Sheridan, Ore. That's about a fifth of Oregon's $7.80 hourly minimum.

According to Alvarez, peak production is in March, April and May, when production from U.S. berry farms is minimal.

An independent inspector, Primus Labs of Santa Maria, Calif., certifies that Hurst's Mexican berries meet U.S. food-safety, pest- and weed-control standards. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors at the principal border crossings that Hurst uses—Yuma and Nogales in Arizona and Hidalgo in Texas—check out Hurst's berries, too.

Then it's on to U.S. supermarkets. Among the chains that sell Hurst's Mexican berries are Sam's Club, Wal-Mart, Giant, Safeway and Publix.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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