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'A Poke In The Eye': Trump Tariffs Threaten Florida Trade Deal With China

A bucket filled with blueberries.
Robbie Gaffney

The latest round of tariffs levied by the Trump Administration is taking a toll on the nation’s agriculture industry. In Florida, the tariffs threaten a trade deal that’s been years in the making. 

Bud Chiles, son of former Gov. Lawton Chiles, runs a 50-acre commercial and you-pick blueberry farm called Jubilee Orchards about fifteen miles northeast of Tallahassee. He began farming full-time about 10 years ago.

Bud Chiles picks blueberries at his farm.
Credit Shawn Mulcahy / WFSU
Tariffs threaten a state trade deal with China to export blueberries.

“And all this was a stretch for a lot of reasons, but blueberries made sense." Chiles said of starting a blueberry farm. "There's the University of Florida and University of Georgia – a lot of expertise, a lot of growers, great markets. And a lot of people that would help us along the way. So, we embarked on it in a really pretty big way.” 

But an escalating trade war with China is casting a dark cloud over Florida’s blueberry industry, threatening the future of farms like Chiles'.

In recent years, President Donald Trump has imposed billions of dollars in tariffs on Chinese goods, citing a national security risk. The U.S. has a trade deficit with China, meaning we import more goods than we export, and in Trump’s eyes, that’s not good. 

But the U.S.-levied tariffs have led China to impose retaliatory tariffs on American goods. That’s taken a toll on domestic industries, particularly farmers.

And the tariffs threaten more than just individual farmers. They could derail a trade deal with China that’s been years in the making.

In 2012, the Florida Agriculture Department started talks with China to export blueberries. Part of the process requires Chinese inspectors to verify quality, including production practices, pest managment and harvest procedures.

Blueberries at Bud Chiles' farm.
Credit Robbie Gaffney / WFSU
Blueberries are one of the state's top crops.

After seven years of negotiations, the compulsory visit by China's General Administration of Quality Supervisors, Inspection, and Quarantine finally occurred last month. The Chinese delegation, accompanied by members of the state Agriculture Department's Division of Plant Industries and representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, toured blueberry farms in Gainesville and Orlando.

Shortly after, Trump imposed a new round of tariffs. And these new tariffs, officials say, could jeoparidze the deal.

"Florida is on the verge of exporting blueberries, one of our state's top crops, to China – but these new tariffs threaten that trade opportunity."

“Florida is on the verge of exporting blueberries, one of our state’s top crops, to China – but these new tariffs threaten that trade opportunity," said Nikki Fried, the state's agriculture commissioner.

Nikki Fried speaking at a press conference.
Credit Shawn Mulcahy / WFSU
Nikki Fried, Florida's agriculture commissioner, worries the tariffs could derail a trade deal to export Florida blueberries.

Fried says tariffs make American goods less competitive and lead to higher prices for American families.

"If President Trump is serious about putting America first, he should start by putting Florida farmers first – not by inciting trade wars with China,” Fried said.

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson (D-FL) worries fallout from the tariffs could crush Florida’s blueberry industry.

“The president is really doing some damage to the industry," said Lawson, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee. "And told several members I talked to today, I just don’t see how you can continue to support [Trump] because you’re destroying the Florida blueberry farmers.”

Trump has given billions of dollars in aid to farmers to help ease the impact of the tariffs. But Chiles says just giving out money doesn’t solve the problem.

“Well those payments are – that’s not what farmers want," said Chiles." People don’t want a handout from the government, they just want to be able to compete. We just want to be able to compete.” 

He says the government needs to do more to protect local farmers.

"I mean these tariffs and the NAFTA agreement are really a poke in the eye to farmers all across the country."

“I mean these tariffs and the NAFTA agreement are really a poke in the eye to farmers all across the country,” Chiles said.

The tariffs are just the latest in a storm of problems for Florida’s struggling agriculture industry. Cheaper, foreign imports have forced local growers to cut seasons short or even go out of business. 

This is part of a series on Florida's agriculture industry. For part two, click here.

Shawn Mulcahy is a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU. He graduated from Florida State University in 2019 with majors in public relations and political science. He was previously an intern at WFSU, and worked as an Account Coordinator at RB Oppenheim Associates.