ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 13 (UPI) -- A rising flood of cheap, subsidized fruit and vegetables from Mexico threatens to kill off domestic produce farms in the Southeast, farmers and legislators told the Trump Administration in a virtual, online hearing Thursday.
Dozens of fruit and vegetable farmers pleaded with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to launch a formal investigation and take immediate steps to curtail Mexican imported produce.
Florida produce is particularly vulnerable because it shares the same growing season as Mexico, but all produce farming in the nation is threatened, the farmers said.
"There are farmers, every day, that are just stopping, giving up, because they see the train coming down the tracks -- and you either get run over you get off," said Michael Hill, owner of blueberry grower H&A Farms in central Florida.
"I've been down to Mexico. I've seen how much they're planting, and when I came back, I've never been as scared as that. This is a real deal," Hill said.
The blueberry market, he said, is larger than ever, but his produce sells for half of what it fetched 10 years ago.
Lighthizer and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said at the hearing they were committed to gathering the testimony and taking appropriate action.
"We're acutely aware that U.S. agriculture facing rising competition, particularly from Mexican imports," Ross said. "It's imperative that the U.S. government listens to the concerns of our growers."
University of Florida economist and associate professor Zhengfei Guan supported the farmers' claims.
Blueberry imports from Mexico surged 115 percent from 2009 to 2019, when 91 million pounds crossed the border, Guan testified. He said strawberry imports from Mexico surged to 400 million pounds in 2019, up from 43 million pounds in 2000.
Guan said Florida's tomato production dropped by half over the same time period, to 800,000 pounds, largely due to increasing pressure from Mexican imports.
The Mexican government's agriculture subsidies averaged $4.5 billion per year, according to a study that looked at Mexico's spending on agriculture from 2006 to 2016, Guan said.
"The Mexican government has been subsidizing its fruit and vegetable industry, and it has negatively affected the Florida fruit and vegetable industry," he said.
Several Florida congressmen, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, and U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, requested that the trade representative's office launch investigations.
Rubio testified he believes Mexican imports violate free trade agreements. He said Mexico is trying to put American farmers "out of business. by heavily subsidizing the domestic industry inside of Mexico."
Soto echoed those arguments. "Without continued oversight of any Mexican bad actors, the robust Florida seasonal produce industry will be eliminated forever," he said.
Federal officials gave no indication of what action they might take. However, a second online hearing is scheduled for Aug. 20.