US pickle shortage tied to extreme weather in Mexico

Every year, Americans consume more than 20 billion pickles, but recently, consumers have noticed some restaurants warning of a "national pickle shortage."

The warnings from restaurants such as Firehouse Subs, local delis and others are generally bona fide, as both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and experts from North Carolina State University say that the combination of reliance on imports and extreme weather could impact supplies.

"There indeed has been a shortage in pickling cucumbers, and it has to do with reduced supply from Mexico," Jonathan Schultheis, a professor in horticultural science at N.C. State University, told FOX Weather. "In certain growing regions, it has been too hot (100 °F), which reduces yields. In other key production regions in Mexico, it has been too cold. The crop has not suffered from freezes but temperatures that do not promote pickling cucumber growth."

Annually, the U.S. imports over a million tons of fresh cucumbers, with around 75% coming from Mexico, but imports may be off by at least 7%, according to USDA estimates.


File: Pickles (Credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

It is this reliance on imports that has some businesses in a pickle.

El Nino impacts on harvesting

A climate cycle known as El Niño has led to extreme weather across Mexico’s 31 states.

Generally, the warm water in the central and eastern Pacific causes increased rainfall and cooler conditions over the winter and warm, dry heat over the summer.

Pickling cucumbers grow best when temperatures are between 70 °F to 90 °F, but a constant has been relatively hard to find.

Vast regions of the country have also been experiencing drought conditions, leading to low water levels in reservoirs.

The country’s National Water Commission has even restricted the flow of some water reservoirs due to the increased strain and demand.

And cucumbers require a decent amount of precipitation, with growers suggesting the crops need about one inch of water per week during the season.

Most of Mexico’s annual rainfall happens during the summer monsoon, but its varying levels of activity means the weather phenomenon is not a dependable drought buster.


Don’t blame Mexico for trade disparity

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the country’s production of cucumbers and certain types of squash have declined despite consumers’ increase in demand for healthy vegetables.

In fact, consumption in recent years has grown by more than 24%, according to government estimates.

The United States International Trade Commission has investigated claims about unfair trading competition – an allegation the agency has found has no merits.

Trade groups have noted that the increase in imports of cucumbers is due to a lack of laborers, poor weather in the Southeast, and consumers’ taste buds favoring the consistency of Mexico’s products over those produced domestically.

"Imports from Mexico have surpassed U.S. domestic production and have become a major source of cucumber and squash supply in the U.S. market. This shift has also occurred in other fresh produce sectors such as fresh market tomatoes and peppers. The trend observed in fresh produce is consistent with the overall fast pace of growth of U.S. agricultural imports from Mexico," specialists at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences previously noted.

Whether Mexico’s production can turn around and overcome weather extremes remains to be seen, but there are plenty of other countries in the Americas that could aid in the pickle dilemma.

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