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Anything Grows, Then Disappears in a Centralized System

August 23, 1990

COMUNIDADES, Mexico (AP) _ Anything grows in this 15-mile-long valley wedged between pine-clad mountains.

Pear, plum, walnut and avocado trees share groves with black raspberry bushes. The fertile soil produces squash, peas, beans, corn, potatoes, chilis and garlic.

Growing a crop is one thing and and selling it another, however, particularly if there is nowhere to go except Mexico City’s Central Market.

Because of that, the five townships of Comunidades, 100 miles west of the capital, are no paradise for the 600 people who live here.

Farmers of Comunidades adopted potatoes as a cash crop 25 years ago, and say the centrally controlled market has paid them little for their work.

″This potato business is no good,″ said Julio Pedregal, loading the his crop for delivery to the market. ″They’ve got us over a barrel. Frankly, we’re not making a thing.″

Many farmers in Comunidades didn’t bother with the harvest this year.

Rosario Santana stopped hoeing a field he has tended for many years and told a visitor: ″A lot of people here have said they’re leaving their potatoes. What can we do?″

The Central Market in Mexico City, the largest market in the Americas, is the main food distribution point for the entire nation and home to a powerful merchants’ organization that dictates prices.

Marco Aurelio Solis, the director, says no one is forced to sell at the market.

″It’s a free country,″ he said. ″Anyone who has a product can take it wherever he wants.″

Whatever Solis may say, more than five centuries of centralization in Mexico City have made the Central Market the only option for millions of farmers.

Mexico has no program to help them locate areas where demand for their products is high, so lesser-known markets flounder and the Central keeps growing, concentrating its strength.

Fifty-seven percent of the nation’s food passes through the Central, which is huge as an airport, before reaching other markets.

Eighty percent of Mexico City’s fresh food goes through the Central on a network of divided highways that snake between rows of brick and concrete warehouses.

Green-and-white exit signs direct farmers to loading docks and consumers to storefronts where 20,000 tons of food are bought and sold each day.

At the heart of the operation are 1,300 private entrepreneurs of the Mexico City Central Market Association, who buy food at their back doors, mark it up and sell it over their front counters.

This year, they bought Comunidades’ potatoes for one or two cents a pound and sold them to wholesalers for four or five cents.

Wholesale buyers resold them in Mexico city grocery stores for 30 cents a pound and in rural markets for $1.

″Our problem is the middleman,″ said Ignacio Escobar, who grew up with Pedregal but moved from Comunidades to Mexico City because ″it’s too hard to make a living on the land.″

″It’s a lot of work and then you end up giving (the potatoes) away,″ he said.

Solis said farmers could sell directly to wholesalers at a special lot for that purpose on the Central Market grounds, but Pedregal responded: ″We’ve never been able to sell direct.″

Escobar called the merchants organization a ″Mafia.″

According to Solis, who was educated at Columbia University, it’s all based on free enterprise, and ″supply and demand is the way it works.″

Pedregal said farmers in Comunidades agree on the asking price for their crop, but when they get to market, association buyers won’t meet it.

″They manipulate us,″ he said. ″It begins at the washing and grading, where they offer 200 or 300 pesos a kilo (four or five cents a pound), but always find an excuse to lower the price. They’re the ones that come up winners.″

The market’s director said middlemen provide an important service. ″The producer is not a salesman,″ Solis said. ″The middleman has a sales job. He knows the most about quality and selection.″

He would not comment on buying procedures at the market.

Government policies of encouraging low food prices for urban workers represent ″four decades of neglect of three-fourths of Mexico’s rural society,″ agricultural analyst August Schumacher has written.

Many farmers who cannot make a living on the land have moved to the overpopulated cities, compounding the problem.

″I’m better off here; we eat here, because of the family farmer,″ said Brigida Carranza, who moved to Mexico City from Tres Quelites, a potato- growing community over the mountain from Comunidades. She works as a housekeeper.

Centralization of the market began before the Spaniards came. The conquistadores found a great variety of foods in open-air markets at the highly organized Tlatelolco market.

Well-established traders, called ″pochtecas,″ were in charge of supplying the market.

Tlatelolco continued operating well into the Spanish colonial period, but had been replaced by the Merced Market by the turn of this century.

By the 1970s, the Merced encompassed more than 100 downtown acres and had become a nightmare, with narrow, congested streets, inadequate storage facilities and rampant racketeering.

Merced still functions, but construction of the streamlined Central Market began in 1982.

This summer, the government started a new program that eventually may help small farmers.

It contemplates a computer system that would show areas of the country where smaller markets need specific products. Producers could take their products directly to those areas, filling a need and getting better prices.

″It’s going to eliminate a lot of abuses,″ but it won’t be ready for five years, said Arturo Fernandez, director of economic deregulation for the Commerce and Industrial Development Department.

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