A Better Tomato

Mexican grower Rosario Beltran says he is convinced.

Two years ago the bottom-line-minded Beltran started using biological compounds called pheromones to keep the tomatoes and other vegetables on his 988 acres near Las Palmas healthy.

To his surprise, it worked. Beltran estimates that last year the switch from pesticides saved him 40 percent off that bottom line he's so concerned about.

"A lot of the other growers say I'm crazy, that all my tomatoes are going to get sick, but I just stick to my guns," Beltran says, driving through row upon row of his crops.

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Beltran is not much of a crusader, but he'd just as soon not use pesticides that make his workers sick. As Jorge Ibarra Castaneda, a no-nonsense grower who is also planning to switch from pesticides, puts it: "We're consumers, too. We live here just the same as anyone else, and we don't want our kids breathing this stuff any more than our workers do."

Beltran's partner, Bob Meyer of Meyer Tomatoes in King City, Calif., is one of the largest U.S. importers of Mexican tomatoes. He calls their decision to switch from pesticides common sense.

"The implications of using illegal pesticides these days are awesome," Meyer says. "If someone got sick from anything with our name on it, we'd be ruined."

To make sure that only limited amounts of chemical pesticides are applied to crops Meyer Tomatoes exports, Meyer and Beltran employ highly skilled supervisors to oversee the Mexican harvest.

That doesn't mean their operation is without flaws--Beltran acknowledges that their 2,000 workers often don't wear protective clothing when applying the few chemical pesticides they still use. And the Mexican government's strict controls make getting the biological compounds complex and costly.

"It's stupid. If they want to encourage us not to use agrochemicals, why don't they make it easier to import the new biological ones?" Beltran asks.

Despite the hassles, Beltran is convinced the switch is a good bottom-line business decision.

"At first I was a little afraid to change, I was so used to doing it the other way," Beltran says. "I still can't convince my neighbors. The only way to change them is by showing them the results. It will take some time, but eventually they'll see."

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