Grocery stores stock so many Mexican tomatoes that the only way to buy a Florida-grown tomato is to make a conscious effort to do so. File Photo courtesy of Pixabay
MIAMI, Oct. 25 (UPI) -- Florida's tomato industry has been under assault by cheap, government-subsidized tomatoes from Mexico since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. But the Trump administration's renegotiated trade treaty offers no relief, growers say.
The new trade deal, dubbed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, makes no changes to how fruits and vegetables are imported from Mexico, where labor is far cheaper than in the United States and the industry is heavily subsidized by the government in the form of vast amounts of capital and growing technology, such as state-of-the-art greenhouses and irrigation systems.
"The agreement is basically silent when it comes to doing anything to provide relief to growers who are impacted by unfair trade products coming in from Mexico," Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, told UPI.
But the agreement has been hailed as a boon for some areas of American agriculture.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the deal helps farmers "secure greater access to the Mexican and Canadian markets."
Indeed, U.S. agriculture sectors that thrive on foreign sales were pleased.
Wheat farmers benefited from a change to the Canadian wheat grading system that labels U.S. wheat as a lower grade because it's foreign.
The top corn lobby, the Corn Refiners Association, called it a "milestone" for corn farmers.
And the National Cattlemen's Beef Association praised the new deal's continuation of allowing U.S. beef and pork exports to Mexico and Canada free of tariffs.
But in Florida, where produce like tomatoes rely on a domestic market, the agreement didn't include any protections from cheaper produce coming from Mexico.
"They didn't take us into consideration at all," said Michael Borek, a third-generation Florida farmer who owns Teena's Pride Farms in Homestead. "The war cry was we're gonna renegotiate NAFTA and make it better for everybody. But it's not better for everybody yet. It was bad before and I don't see it getting any better."
Borek said his farm has been hit so hard by Mexican imports that he has reduced in size from 160 acres and 40 employees in 2015 to about 20 acres and seven part-time employees today. Unable to compete in the bulk vegetable space, Borek has concentrated on providing fresh produce for local restaurants and offers a subscription service for individuals and families that provides a box of fresh produce each week.
"I've gone into more specialized crops," Borek said. "I've adjusted. But I can no longer be in the big bulk markets."
That's because American grocery stores are stocking their shelves with Mexican tomatoes.
According to research by Zhengfei Guan and others at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the Mexican government has invested billions of dollars in the country's agricultural sector since 2007 as part of a "National Development Plan."
These generous subsidies can include footing the bill for up to 50 percent of the cost for harvesting equipment and up to $200,000 on each greenhouse, micro-tunnel and shade house a producer wants to build.
Mexico's National Development Plan, combined with cheap labor and unfettered access to the U.S. market via NAFTA, has worked well.
In 2000, the total amount of Mexican tomatoes in the U.S. market was 20 percent less than Florida tomatoes, according to U.S. Department of Commerce and USDA data compiled by the UF researchers.
By 2016, Mexican tomatoes in the U.S. market was five times higher than Florida's (3.6 billion pounds vs. 700 million pounds).
Guan said if that trend continues, "The Florida tomato industry will be wiped out."
There's no indication the trend will stop.
Guan points to Mexico's unwillingness during the USMCA negotiations to agree to any provisions that would restrict its current model of selling fruits and vegetables to the United States without any form of tariffs. And for good reason: Mexico has invested a lot of money in its produce sector and it has become a lucrative market. The country's fruit and vegetable exports to the United States now total $11.5 billion per year.
Bosco de la Vega, president of Mexico's National Agriculture Council, recently said that such an idea would be a "red line" for the Mexican government.
Meanwhile, U.S. corn and grain producers who were selling billions to the Mexican market under NAFTA will continue to do so under the new agreement. And Florida tomato growers said they're being sacrificed so that exchange can continue.
"The access that the grain and corn industries have gotten in Mexico is at the expense of our industry," Stuart said. "If you look at the agriculture trade deficit that exists between Mexico and the U.S., most of that is coming as a result of their exports of fruit and vegetables and that competes with the Southeastern states. So we're paying the price for a lot of market access for other commodities and it is frustrating when they work against."
Jim Alderman, owner of Alderman Farms in Boynton Beach, Fla., said Florida growers have been "falling by the wayside" in recent years. But there has been hope from the "buy local" movement since grocery stores stock so many Mexican tomatoes that the only way to buy a Florida-grown tomato is to make a conscious effort to do so.
Nonetheless, Alderman, who grew up farming in Florida, is witnessing the death of what was once one of the Sunshine State's most lucrative crops.
"I've seen family farms, third-generation farms, just stopping and going out of business," he said. "Some of these guys have even taken the step of sourcing the product from Mexico and repacking it here."