Federal policy supports domestic agriculture
On Sept. 1, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Commerce released a report outlining the Trump Administration’s plan to address the threat posed by increased foreign imports to American producers of seasonal and perishable fruits and vegetables. The action is very strong in supporting domestic producers while challenging fruit and vegetable imports, particularly from Mexico.
The USDA announced the action in a press release, which noted six steps going forward. These were cited under the heading: “Plan to Support American Producers of Seasonal and Perishable Fruits and Vegetables.”
Key points made were:
- USTR will request the International Trade Commission to initiate a global safeguard investigation into the extent to which increased imports of blueberries have caused serious injury to domestic blueberry growers.
- USTR will pursue senior-level government-to-government discussions with Mexico over the next 90 days to address U.S. industry concerns regarding U.S. imports of Mexican strawberries, Bell peppers, and other seasonal and perishable products.
- USTR will work with domestic producers to commence an investigation by the International Trade Commission to monitor and investigate imports of strawberries and Bell peppers, which could enable an expedited global safeguard investigation later this year.
The Department of Commerce will:
- Establish an outreach program to connect with Southeastern and other growers of seasonal and perishable fruits and vegetables, to enhance understanding of applicable trade remedy laws and processes; and
- Establish a formal channel for stakeholders to provide information related to unfair subsidies for foreign producers and exporters of seasonal and perishable fruits and vegetables, including those in Mexico – building on ongoing efforts to partner with U.S. industry to identify such subsidies.
- Increase targeted outreach to producers of seasonal and perishable fruits and vegetables to maximize the use of existing Department of Agriculture programs.
- Develop a market promotion strategy for domestically produced produce.
USTR, the Department of Commerce, and USDA will establish an interagency working group to monitor seasonal and perishable fruit and vegetable products.
The plan announced Sept. 1 follows public hearings held in August where more than 60 witnesses testified, in addition to over 300 written submissions.
Among those commenting for the public record was Gary Wishnatzki, president and CEO of Wish Farms in Plant City, FL. Wishnatzki noted that Wish Farms “are both growers and marketers of fresh berries, including strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. While we are based in Florida, we market berries from growers throughout North and South America, including Mexico.”
Wishnatzki added: “Florida strawberry growers have experienced ups and downs over the last 15 years, since Mexico has become a major exporter. The key point I would like to make is that Florida’s acreage has been stagnant for a number of years, while the Mexican acreage has expanded at a rapid pace. The average Florida grower has not had enough good years to offset the losers. Mexican growers have lower production costs, which one could argue is just free trade.
“That is not the whole story. I understand that those growers are getting subsidies from their government. This is patently unfair and illegal,” Wishnatzki indicated. “The onslaught of Mexican government subsidies has now been directed to blueberry growers. The Florida blueberry industry is now facing the same challenges as the strawberry industry. Under USMCA, we are not afforded a viable mechanism to bring a trade dispute. The lack of a seasonal provision forces a seasonal producer to get the support of the majority of the domestic producers. Ironically, in some cases, the very companies that you would need to support a dispute, are also the growers in Mexico. The seasonal provision was simply about fairness. Sadly, fairness got negotiated out of the USMCA.”
Also commenting of the proposed legislation was Walter Ram, vice president of food safety for The Giumarra Companies.
For background, Ram explained, “Giumarra is a vertically integrated, privately held produce company based in California. We are growers, shippers, importers, exporters, distributors, wholesalers and grape breeders. We supply our customers with year-round supplies of high-quality fruit and vegetables that meet consumer preferences and customer demands. We also export U.S. fruit to markets like the UK, the Pacific Rim, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and we are continuously looking to broaden our export markets.”
Ram continued: “Agricultural export markets are a bright spot in the U.S. balance of trade. Like many other sectors of the U.S. agriculture industry, we have invested a great deal of time and money into growing our export business. We fear that if individual states or regions are able to start trade wars with other countries, it will lead to significant damage of our export business, not just from countries that we erect trade barriers with, but also any other country that is looking for an excuse to limit the amount of U.S. agricultural products that are dominating their markets. Imports and exports are also responsible for millions of American jobs.”
Ram told the USTR: “As domestic growers, we agree that U.S. farmers should be protected against predatory trade practices from other countries. We need to be careful what we define as predatory or unfair trade practices, however. A region of the U.S. that has undergone hard times due to weather, competition from other areas, disease, and more, is deserving of assistance but erecting trade barriers is a strategy that is likely to do much more harm to the domestic industry than good.
“We can say with the experience that we felt declining demand for seeded grapes 30 years ago, and when we planted seedless grapes, we found that competition was fierce, so we developed our own grapes that were better tasting and crunchier,” he continued. “We also forged strategic alliances to ensure that we could supply grapes and other commodities year-round. Similar success stories are told by U.S. apple growers and other U.S. producers. It is important to understand that consumers used to buy what farmers grew, but now farmers have to grow what consumers want to buy and it has to be good quality.”
Ram concluded: “We support assisting Southeastern farmers, but we strongly believe that rewarding a region that has largely ignored long-term planning, technical innovation, diversification, and consumer demands by erecting trade barriers is a very bad idea that will severely harm U.S. agriculture. On a positive note, we do believe that focusing assistance to these farmers in a more positive manner can add not only success to the region, but also add to the overall success of U.S. agriculture as a whole.”
On Sept. 1, the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas released the following statement: “This politically motivated action directly undermines the new U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, positioning the U.S. as an unreliable trading partner despite any trade agreements they negotiate.
“Mexico is our largest trading partner, with a climate ideally suited for fresh fruits and vegetables,” the statement continued. “Sadly, partisan politics failed to consider the best interests of American farmers, American businesses and American consumers, who will likely see increased food costs and lower overall farm exports. The complaint was based on an intentionally misleading propaganda campaign from Florida and Georgia growers based on rhetoric without data that supports their claims.”
Photo: Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, with Walter Ram, vice president of food safety for The Giumarra Cos., working together in Washington, DC, in September 2015.