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Sustainability in Nogales: People

Several businesses in the Nogales, AZ, area have been at the forefront of the sustainability movement.

It is “not something new,” says Olga Borquez, sustainability manager for Wholesum Family Farms, Inc., BB #:135847 in Nogales. It “has been going on for many, many years, but is just now catching on. It has positive benefits for everyone.”

Borquez adds that Wholesum focuses on four values: “responsible growing, integrity, people on the move, and problem solvers.”

James Martin of Wilson Produce, LLC, BB #:206396 another Nogales firm, observes, “We see sustainability, generally, as having to do with meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.”

“Sustainability does have many meanings,” says Gretchen Kreidler Austin, director of marketing and business development for SunFed, BB #:150037 also based in Nogales.

“At SunFed, we focus on two: maintaining or surpassing our level of perfection in our produce, year after year; and doing all that we can to be stewards of our earth, reducing the use of and dependence on natural resources.”

To see how Nogales businesses are implementing sustainability, let’s start with the first of the three Ps: people.

At SunFed, Austin reports, “At our office/warehouse level, we have secured our buildings and work areas with thumbprint readers to ensure everyone’s safety while at work from outside threats. We provide, of course, healthcare and fair wages, and a very nice, comfortable place to work, as well as training and opportunities for promotion.”

At Wilson, Martin reports, “Providing paths for employees to grow within the company has been of great importance to us. We strive to groom and build from within the company when and where we can versus looking to the outside.

At Wholesum, sustainability takes many guises. Fair trade is one of them. Borquez defines this as “fair wages, safe working environment, investment in communities.” She points out that Wholesum “was the first farm to become Fair Trade Certified in the United States” back in 2012.

The website for Fair Trade Certified—the organization that provides this designation—echoes Borquez’s description: “We work closely on the ground with producers and certify transactions between companies and their suppliers to ensure that the people making Fair Trade Certified goods work in safe conditions, protect the environment, build sustainable livelihoods, and earn additional money to empower and uplift their communities.”

Wholesum, which produces eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, bell peppers, artichokes, and cucumbers, operates three farms, totaling 563 acres, on both sides of the border. The farms are in Amado, AZ, and in Los Janos and Culiacán, Sinaloa.

A premium is added to all of Wholesum’s Fair Trade certified items. The premium then goes to each corresponding Fair Trade Committee, which decides, along with the workers, what they need most, such as “school buses, football fields, flooring, and toilets,” according to Borquez.

Wholesum’s U.S. operation provides food and health care. The company picks up 60 percent of health care costs, while 20 percent is paid by the Fair Trade Committee and 20 percent by the employee.

In Wholesum’s Mexican operations, employee services are more extensive. The company “provides housing for workers in Mexico on both farms,” says Borquez. When employees decide what they want in infrastructure, Wholesum contributes.

Wholesum’s interest isn’t limited to full-time employees. “Some of the workers are migrants,” Borquez notes. “It’s interesting to go to their towns and see, is the water in your community drinkable? Can you shower with it? Can you use it to water your plants?”

“It’s amazing to see how [workers are] thinking more about themselves and their necessities,” Borquez continues. “They’re looking at a more wholesome way of living, education for their children. They’re “looking for a better outcome. They’re looking further into the long term rather than the short term.”

Although it’s convenient to categorize sustainability into the three Ps, these areas often overlap. At Wholesum, caring for its people helps its profits. “We can talk about profit based on the social side,” Borquez stresses. “Thanks to our commitment to fair trade, the rotation of employees goes down,” and there’s “less turnover.”

This is multi-part feature on sustainability adapted from the Nogales supplement in the January/February 2020 issue of Produce Blueprints.


Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.