Florida farmers are struggling to compete with cheaper, foreign imports from countries such as Mexico. Farmers worry unfair trade practices endanger the state's agriculture industry.
Bud Chiles is a blueberry farmer in North Florida. He runs the 50-acre Jubilee Orchards outside Tallahassee. In recent years, Chiles has struggled to compete with cheaper blueberries imported from Mexico.
"The distributors have become very, very focused on purchasing large farms in places like Chile and Argentina and Mexico and Central America," said Chiles. "The reason that’s a big problem for local growers is Mexico, particularly, they’re growing blueberries down there with large subsidies from their government.”
The subsidies, along with lax labor standards and farming regulations, mean it’s incredibly cheap to grow produce in Mexico. To put that into numbers: for every dollar spent by U.S. blueberry farmers, their Mexican counterparts spend just 10 cents, according to a University of Georgia study.
For distributors, it’s a no-brainer. They can buy the Mexican-grown fruit at a lower price, leaving a larger profit margin. But that comes at a price for domestic growers.
“This season, just to give you an example," said Chiles, "when the Mexican fruit started coming into the market, the price literally dropped in half for the growers. To the point where it really didn’t pay – in the middle of our season – to continue to harvest fruit.”
The Mexican blueberry season is during winter in the U.S. – the off-season for domestic growers. Distributors bring in South American fruit for U.S. customers.
But the Mexican government has invested large sums of money into building greenhouses across the country, the UGA study shows. This extends their season far into the time American growers usually harvest. This, coupled with the much cheaper labor costs, is devastating domestic agriculture.
It's not specific to blueberries. Graves Williams heads the Quincy Tomato Company in Quincy, Florida. When he first started growing tomatoes in 1984, Williams says there were somewhere between 225 and 250 tomato farmers in Florida. Now, Williams estimates there are around 20.
The problem began when the U.S. joined the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, Williams said. NAFTA is a trade deal with the U.S., Canada and Mexico that opened up American markets to Mexican produce.
“But what the Mexicans ended up doing is anytime we had a good market, they would triple their imports into the United States at a cheaper price and the market would start to fall.” Williams said.
That trade process, known as dumping, occurs when a country exports a product at low price and floods the market. Dumping affects most of Florida’s produce, including strawberries, blueberries and peppers.
Florida farmers have railed against the trade agreement for the last quarter century and its unpopularity is pretty widespread. President Donald Trump made renegotiating NAFTA part of his campaign platform.
Last September, Trump announced a new deal: the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
"We've negotiated for Mexico and Canada to lift their retaliatory tariffs on American pork, cheese and orange juice," Vice President Mike Pence said at a rally in Jacksonville this week. "Under this new agreement, Florida's farmers are going to win like never before.”
Yet many agriculture experts say the new USMCA doesn’t address the so-called seasonal loophole, allowing Mexican farmers to cut into the domestic growing season.
“When there’s no seasonal exemption in USMCA, Mexico has an ability to have lower cost standards for labor, lower health standards in place," said Nikki Fried, the state's agriculture commissioner. "There’s subsidies coming in from the Mexican government that our blueberries and tomatoes, and all our seasonal crops, cannot compete under those conditions.”
The USMCA still needs Congressional approval and Fried is urging the Florida delegation to vote against it unless the deal includes seasonal protections.
“If the Trump Administration wants to put America first, they should put Florida’s farmers first, and help them compete on a level playing field,” Fried said.
U.S. Reps. Republican Vern Buchanan (R-Tampa) and Al Lawson (D-Tallahassee) have introduced a standalone bill (H.R. 101) to do just that. The Defending Domestic Produce Production Act has the bipartisan support of Florida’s representatives.
“Under NAFTA and some of the things that the president has implemented, not only does it affect Florida growers but especially crops and that’s where we’re really falling behind,” said Lawson, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee.
“[H.R. 101] would give them the opportunity not only to provide subsidies for them, but at the same to put the restrictions that we have with Mexico who has really been taking advantage of the produce and stuff that we have coming into the country.”
These protections are necessary to save a struggling industry, said John-Walt Boatright, national affairs director for the Florida Farm Bureau.
“Over the past number of years, the amount of imports surging into Florida have caused a lot of producers to make the hard decision whether or not to continue producing and farming,” Boatright said.
Many farmers have grappled with leaving the business, even Williams, one of North Florida’s largest tomato growers.
“I am 69 years old and we have been on the verge two or three times of having to give it up," Williams said. "Every now and then after the Mexicans get through with us on cheap markets – it’s hard to keep going.”
Chiles – the blueberry farmer – and Fried say the best way to save local producers is to buy local. Fried touts increased funding for the Fresh from Florida brand, a marketing campaign to support Florida-grown produce.
But Williams thinks if the national government doesn’t act soon, most domestic producers will be forced out of business.
“My tomatoes and the Mexican tomatoes have to go to market and be consumed," Williams said. "And so, without federal assistance we will not survive. That is the key thing.”
This is part of a series on Florida's agriculture industry. For part one, click here.