MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally today, if you plan on using some limes to liven up that Nowruz feast or your happy hour tequila shots, who knows, you might be in for a bit of sticker shock. It turns out that the price of limes is skyrocketing in North America, and that's putting the squeeze on restaurants and food lovers from coast-to-coast. We had to know why so we've called Gustavo Arellano. He writes the syndicated column Ask a Mexican, and he's the author most recently of "Taco USA." We caught up with him in California. Welcome back, Gustavo. Thanks for joining us once again.
GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Hola, Michel.
MARTIN: So what exactly is going on with the limes? Is it some kind of - a fungus or a blight or some kind of frost or something?
ARELLANO: It's a confluence of like the worst possible factors for lovers of limes. So right now we're at peak harvest season for limes so, naturally, the price increases every year, but usually just by a little bit. This past harvest was a really bad harvest because of bad rainfall in Mexico, where a huge percentage of the limes sold in the United States are grown. And you also had an infestation that also severely, you know, hurt the crop.
And on top of that, the lime growing regions of Mexico just happen to be in the area where the Knights Templar drug cartel has been fighting, you know, scorched-earth battles against vigilante groups down there. So you put that all together. Usually right now, the price of a 40 pound case of limes for wholesalers - they buy it at around $25, maybe $30. Right now, as of two days ago, a price of a case was $115. And that's wholesale for these people at supermarkets. And then of course once you start selling it to the consumer, now the price - you know, the last time I checked, I had to buy limes, we were having a margarita party at this past weekend for "Walking Dead," so the price was $4 for 1 pound of limes, which is insane.
MARTIN: What would you expect to pay for - the price of a pound of limes?
ARELLANO: You don't really realize how much you're paying for stuff until it finally hits you in the pocket. So I had to go through my old receipts, and it was just like 99 cents maybe a dollar, you know, $1.10 or whatever. So it's almost like a 400 percent increase. And you think, oh, you know, $4 for a bag of limes, it doesn't really matter. And maybe so for the home consumer, but when it comes to Mexican restaurants, lime is the secret to Mexican food. We put it in our margaritas, we use it as a little garnish for, you know, give it that last extra umph for your tacos. We use it in guacamole, we use it in ceviche. So for restaurateurs, they are just freaking out right now.
MARTIN: Tell me a little bit more about what's going on with the whole question of that war between the militias and the drug cartels in the lime growing regions. What's actually happening there? Is it because they are - it's just too dangerous for the farmers to get to their fields or are the drug cartels, you know, extorting the farmers? Are they stealing the limes? I mean, what's exactly going on?
ARELLANO: This problem has actually been a long time coming because for the last couple of years, the main lime growing region in Mexico is in the state of Michoacan, in an area called la Tierra Caliente - the hot land. And so that's where, you know, for the past couple of years, the Knights Templar cartel, they've been extorting - if they're nice, they're extorting the lime growers there and if they're not nice, they just take the lands, flat out. So in the past year you've had - they're called Autodefensas in Spanish, which is basically, you know, armed uprisings from local groups - and they've been trying to push out the cartel. So as a result now, the cartels have been fighting back.
And now they're not - you know, they're really not trying to be as nice as they, quote-unquote, used to be. So these lime growers, what they've done now - they're starting to hire armed guards to try to transport their lime crop to the producers, whether it's ports or going up to the U.S.-Mexico border to sell, you know, to the United States. But even that's not good enough. A couple of weeks ago, there was a hijacking of - I think, it was a ton of limes - retail value was a quarter million dollars. And the truck was hijacked by these drug cartels. It's amazing.
MARTIN: So it's the kind of situation that people use to see from the Mafia, which they would actually just take over the product and sell it themselves or they squeeze the farmers so much that it becomes not worth it for them to work. They kind of impose their own tax, as it were.
ARELLANO: Yeah, absolutely. There's a saying in Mexico - it's plata o plomo, which is like you pay me off or, you know, you get killed with a lead bullet. And so, you know, it's great that these, you know, that these citizens in the - la Tierra Caliente - they're finally saying enough is enough, but because of that chaos and given the other factors, that just does means lime prices have been going in a rate unprecedented. Like, I have sources who work in the produce industry in the United States and they've said before this, maybe the most they had ever paid for a case of limes was maybe 40 or 50 bucks, and that of course shocked them. So $105 - we're now in uncharted terrain right now.
MARTIN: What are the restaurants doing? I mean, are they charging for limes?
ARELLANO: Here in Southern California, which is of the capital of Mexican food in the world, a lot of these taco places, they're not even giving you limes anymore - you have to request them. And that's if they're nice. And then others, they're trying to sneak in lemons, and of course the consumer is, like - a lemon is not the same thing as a lime, I'm sorry. They might both cousins of the same citrus family, but they're not the same. Or they're charging you. I've seen places that have been charging, you know, it's a small figure right - a dime, maybe even a quarter. But these restaurants are like, look, we have razor thin profit margins, this is really eating into it.
And then there's a bar, a really cool bar here in Orange County called Matador Cantina. They actually have a promo right now, if you give us a bag of limes, we'll sell you a margarita for a quarter. And nothing against Matador Cantina, but anyone who does that, they're a fool because right now lime - it's green gold right now. You might as well sell it on the open market.
MARTIN: Gustavo Arellano's latest book is "Taco USA." He writes the syndicated column "Ask a Mexican" for OC Weekly. And we caught up with him in California. Gustavo, thanks so much for joining us.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.