US Blueberry Growers Will Have to Look Toward Technology to Compete

It appears that specialty crops – including blueberries – are taking a back seat in the current negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement as arguments over tariffs and other higher priority items are being discussed.

“I see no major concession for the specialty crop with the current negotiation,” said Brittany Lee, president of the Florida Grower's Association.

Lee and Georgia Blueberry Growers Association President Brandon Wade sent a letter to Robert E. Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative for Florida Agriculture, who is negotiating the NAFTA contract, asking that provisions to protect the blueberry industry of those two states be included in the negotiations. Likewise, Florida Secretary of Agriculture Adam Putnam sent a letter asking for the same. So far in the negotiations, nothing has seemed happen in regard to those letters.

“This is the general consensus,” Lee said.

She said the crops being discussed include grains and corn which is larger in American agriculture. She said she doesn't have a lot of hope anything will come from the negotiations in regard to blueberries.

The problem with blueberry farmers in the United States boils down to cost and the number of plants being grown in Mexico.

In 2015, the Florida and Georgia blueberry industry had a $186 million industry which had a economic impact of double that. This past season Mexico imported 43.5 million pounds of fresh blueberries and Florida and Georgia produced about half of that.

That is only part of the problem. Michael Hill of H&A Farms in Mount Dora said the difference in labor costs is tremendous.

“The biggest competition is Mexico. They are planting an obscene amount of blueberries but their cost in labor is much lower.”

He said the Mexican government is helping subsidize farmers with water and housing.

“Their government is helping them in business and our government is helping us go out of business,” he said.

The number of blueberries being produced in the United States has grown, but the same has happened in Mexico. Last year there were about 15 million plants in Mexico. Hill said when they started there was less than 1 million in Mexico.

“We've got about half a million and most of that is replanting,” he said. “And because of the added costs,” it makes blueberries in the U.S. more expensive.

“Generally if this follows the trend of tomatoes the Florida blueberry cannot compete in the long-term with the increasing production of the Mexican blueberry where they have lower production costs,” Lee said.

Jared Gross, from Highland Ag Products in Arcadia and a personal farm manager, said NAFTA isn't to help smaller farms.

“Specialty crops probably don't have as much pull as the big farms,” he said. “All American growers are struggling a little bit because of the imports.”

Solutions to fair trade in specialty crops should take another direction. Lowering the costs can be one way, Hill said.

“Our only move may be going 100 percent machine harvest,” he said.

He added, however, that would take a lot of money not only to buy the equipment but to set up farms to be able to deal with this harvesting method.

“For  the long term either Florida blueberry growers have to grow more effectively with machine harvesting to have a cost-saving opportunity,” Lee said. “Or they can grow something else. The future of the Florida blueberry as the Mexican production increases is to be more cost effective and get mechanized.”

Essentially the growers have little faith in the current NAFTA talks and don't think their industry will either come up at all or will anything happen make a difference.

“I'm not going to rely on it,” Hill said. “The only ones working with us is the FDA and they are in Washington. And this isn't just blueberries. It's all the specialty crops. There used to be 100 tomato fields (in Florida) when NAFTA started. Now there are 10.”

Gross added, “We don't have a whole lot (of hope). We're just a small mark on a big elephant and we have a long way to go.”


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