Glimmer of Hope

Trump Administration to Investigate Mexican Trade Practices on Heels of Public Hearings


It’s a familiar story for Florida’s specialty crop growers. As a result of what many call unfair trade practices, they’ve lost billions of dollars to Mexico. But despite a particularly devastating year for many farmers, there may finally be a glint of hope on the horizon. 

On September 1, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Commerce announced an investigation into Mexican trade practices. 

The United States Trade Representative, Department of Agriculture and Department of Commerce said they plan to scrutinize Mexican blueberry imports and engage in discussions about imports of Mexican strawberries, bell peppers and other seasonal produce.

The announcement came after two days of virtual public hearings in August that drew more than 60 witness testimonies and more than 300 written submissions from growers, elected officials and industry officials in Florida and Georgia.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried has been a staunch supporter of Florida’s farmers and has often argued that the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement falls far short of smoothing over the friction points that plagued NAFTA.

In August, Fried and the FDACS released a report that attributed up to $3.7 billion in losses from 2000-2019 to unfair trade practices. In addition, the report says an estimated 37,000 jobs have been lost because of the trade practices.

At the center of the problem, Fried and other critics argue, is that NAFTA unfairly harmed Florida farmers by forcing them to compete with Mexico’s lax safety standards, lower labor costs and government subsidies.

Fried was cautiously appreciative of the administration’s plan, saying it recognizes the decades-long suffering endured by Florida and the American season producers. 

“This is another step towards making an impact on this major problem,” Fried said. “It’s clear there is still a lot of work needed to provide the relief our farmers desperately need.” 

August’s virtual hearings amassed a powerhouse of influential growers and elected officials who voiced their concerns over trade policies undermining specialty crop producers in Florida.

Patrick Carroll, vice president of operations at The Clear Springs Co., a grower and marketer of strawberries and blueberries in Winter Haven, explained that during the past five years, the price-per-pound return at the blueberry farm has declined more than 28 percent.

“Without a reversal in this trend,” Carroll said, “it does not make sense to put another blueberry plant in the ground.”

Among his proposed solutions, he asked that a tax or tariff be assessed on Mexican produce to level the playing field for unfair subsidies and wages. 

Wrapping up the first day of hearings, Chris Spencer spoke on behalf of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying the state is anxious to “re-balance trade with Mexico” and ensure the livelihood of Florida's agriculture community.

One of the testimonies being called “electric” by many peers was that of Michael Hill of H&A Farms, a grower and packer of fresh blueberries in Central Florida. Hill, a fourth-generation grower, said that while his two young children dream of one day working on the family farm, he is discouraging them from following in the footsteps of their father, and his father before him. 

He spoke to the real danger he and fellow growers feel Mexico poses to the industry. 

“If import pressures for specialty crops in Florida continue to rise, we will soon be completely reliant upon other countries like Mexico for our food supply and our great state of Florida will lose one of its most cherished, historic, and invaluable industries—agriculture. This is a real deal,” he says. 

“There's farmers every day that are just stopping, giving up, because they see the train coming down the tracks and you either get run over or you get off.”

John Hoblick, president of the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, pointed out that the damage done to Florida alone was exactly that — damage done to just one state. He predicted similar pleas for help from asparagus farmers in Michigan, blueberry growers in Georgia, or onion producers in New York, all experiencing the same hardships. 

“It's abundantly clear that we rest at a critical juncture here today,” he said.
“As they have in the past, farm families, some who have openly considered how much longer they can stay in business and sustain their livelihoods, will likely approach the leaders present today and ask, what did you do for fair trade when you had the chance? And I hope we can tell them, as industry leaders and you as federal policy makers, we did absolutely everything within our influence and your authority to advocate on principles of fair trade for the hard working farm families of Florida.”

Mike Joyner, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, detailed how Florida is “essential in feeding Americans fresh U.S.-grown produce from November to late spring.” Yet cheap imports have limited that state’s ability to meet demand, he said, citing the devastation seen early this year when Mexico inundated the U.S. market with additional crops while Florida farmers were forced to plow under crops.

While many of the sentiments aired during the meeting struck a common chord, they were not unanimous. Mark Greef, vice president and general manager of the eastern region of Driscoll's Incorporated, was one of the few dissenting voices during testimony in Florida. 

Greef maintained that it is market signals and demand, not governmental trade policies, that account for increased goods from Mexico. 

“The berry industry is not a zero sum gain, in which gains in one area mean losses elsewhere,” he said. “Instead, U.S. consumers’ demand for berries has increased significantly over the past 25 years. Consumers want berries, and they want them year-round. During a year where Florida and Georgia have experienced late winter or early spring freezes that limit the crop potential, the supply from other areas, such as Mexico, aid in maintaining retail shelf space and continue consumption of berries throughout that period.”

Driscoll's, he said, is “optimistic about the future of berry production in Mexico and in the Southeast and U.S.”

When further asked how Driscoll’s has been able to avoid the hardships other specialty crop growers and representatives have experienced, Greef replied, “We've shifted the focus of the timing of production and also drastically enhanced the productivity of our fields in order to basically produce more fruit with the same amount of resource.” 

Rick Roth of Roth Farms summed up the majority opinion with a challenge for the administration. 

“Where are the people in USDA and USTR that will stand up and say that regional American specialty crop agriculture will not disappear on their watch because of a weak enforcement mechanism?” he asked. “All we're asking for is an enforcement mechanism.”

The administration’s announcement raises the hope that now that enforcement mechanism may be coming sooner rather than later.

Brittany Lee, executive director of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association, echoed the resounding plea.

“Our industry supports free trade,” she said. “But it has to be fair. Our growers simply want an even playing field and an opportunity to continue our family operations, to remain in production and agriculture, to invigorate the economy, and to provide a safe, healthy superfood for our consumers.”

The administration’s announcement raises the hope that an enforcement mechanism may be coming sooner rather than later.

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