Why Florida farmers want to kill NAFTA

As U.S. trade representatives sit down with their Canadian and Mexican counterparts to renegotiate Nafta, fruit and vegetable farmers in the Southeast have emerged as a staunch component of the anti-free-trade movement. That’s put them at odds with much of the U.S. agriculture industry, which has long been one of the biggest advocates—and beneficiaries—of Nafta. Since 1994, the year the agreement went into effect, exports of staple crops such as corn, soybeans, and wheat have more than quadrupled.

Outside the U.S. Grain Belt in the Midwest, Nafta has harmed U.S. fruit and vegetable farmers, who’ve struggled to maintain market share in the face of cheaper Mexican produce. Florida, where crops can be harvested in the dead of winter, has emerged as the epicenter of anti-Nafta sentiment in U.S. agriculture. Located farther south than California, which is the main U.S. source of fresh produce, Florida made year-round fruits and vegetables possible in U.S. grocery stores. “There were times of the year when Florida vegetables fed the whole nation,” says Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, a grower group. “Everyone else has a frost. We can still produce.”

Increasingly, though, the fruits and vegetables Americans buy come from Mexico, not Florida. While annual U.S. tomato consumption has risen 61 percent since 1994, to 6.9 billion pounds, domestic production has fallen 11 percent, to 3.2 billion pounds, according to government data. Meanwhile, Mexican tomato imports have quadrupled, to 3.57 billion pounds, and strawberry imports have risen sixfold, to 568 million pounds. This has led to a rash of fruit and vegetable farm bankruptcies across Florida.

Mexico’s lower labor costs are a major concern for a producer such as Reeder; he, unlike an Illinois corn farmer who can harvest thousands of acres alone with his tractor, needs 500 fieldworkers to pick 600 acres of tomatoes by hand. Says Brown: “I understand that people will say if Mexico can grow it cheaper, let them produce it. But there are small towns depending on this, and as an American, that is my first and foremost concern.”

Read more at Bloomberg (Alan Bjerga)

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