You probably saw the news that field hearings to consider protection measures for U.S. produce against fruit and vegetable imports have been postponed.
The meetings, organized under the auspices of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Commerce, had been scheduled in Florida and Georgia April 7 and April 9.
Of course, the hearings were postponed consistent with the social distancing direction from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
No new dates for the hearings yet, but the comment period on seasonal protection is open, with the March 26 deadline waived. You will find only one comment posted at regulations.gov now, but it packs a punch.
Written by a Florida watermelon grower, the letter states:
Dear Ambassador Lighthizer,
I am a watermelon producer from Highlands County, FL. My company is a third generation family owned and operated business. We have specialized in the growing and shipping of high quality watermelons for more than 40 years. We grow 130 - 200 acres of watermelons every year.
I appreciate the commitment you made to our congressional leaders to assist in seeking trade solutions that would provide effective and timely relief for our industry.
Based on your comments we know this Administration has heard our concerns and is committed to find these solutions to our trade situation. I am optimistic that your office, our Member of Congress, and the President will work together to provide our watermelon industry some relief soon.
For over ten years I have had to compete with Mexican growers who receive subsidies from their government and they pay wages 10 times less than I do. Workers in the US are paid $12.00/hour and I am told workers in Mexico earn $11/day!!
Because Mexico has been given this unfair advantage, I have lost sales due to watermelons being dumped into the US market at prices 50% to 75% cheaper than our production prices.
This year the effects will be even more pronounced for my company due to the fact that certain chain stores have informed us that even though we have been a major supplier to multiple distribution centers for over ten years, they will NOT be purchasing melons from us for the months of April, May, and most of June because they have signed contracts with Mexico to buy watermelons there. We were not notified of this change until AFTER our crops were already planted.
It is clear that Florida growers simply cannot compete with a country that uses unfair, trade-distorting practices like Mexico has for the past 20 years. The devastating impacts to the Florida produce industry we have experience under NAFTA will only grow worse without trade relief, with losses reaching levels that put our specialty crop industry’s survival at risk.
Since NAFTA took effect – but especially in the past 15 to 20 years – the Mexican fruit and vegetable industry has carved out more and more of the U.S. market. Unfair pricing practices and surging volumes have helped Mexico achieve dominance in the U.S. market during the winter. In addition, since 2001 the Mexican government has funded elaborate aid programs subsidizing virtually all aspects of production, including investment in infrastructure for protected agriculture, equipment, post-harvest management, genetic resources, irrigation technology and more.
As Mexican fruits and vegetables have swamped Florida’s market in increasing volume year over year, Mexico has systematically decimated our prices and market shares. Many of us are finding it impossible to compete and are closing our operations. Losses occur for both individual growers and Florida’s economy because of depressed prices and from quality crops left in the field because we can’t compete during our market window.
We must have a special trade mechanism to help restore market fairness. Unfortunately, USMCA contains no remedies to correct this issue. Without relief, multigenerational family farms will continue to shut down. What’s more, if we are unable to produce our own fresh fruits and vegetables, we’ll be forced to rely on foreign sources for our food, which makes this a national security issue.
Ultimately, Because USMCA failed to address this growing crisis, if USTR does not launch a case quickly to investigate and resolve these unfair and harmful practices, USMCA will preside over the end of the Florida produce industry as we know it. I, along with my fellow growers, are depending on you and the Administration to develop effective trade resources that will allow our produce industry to have fair trade. Without your help I cannot survive many more seasons of losses. We need a level playing field. Please help us.
TK: Though the letter has boilerplate features that will be found in a mass write-in campaign, it is effective because it speaks to the pain and the experience of the individual grower.
Particularly, when the letter speaks to the fact that “certain chain stores” have informed the growers that they would be buying from Mexico in April, May and most of June instead of supporting U.S. grown-watermelon, the point is driven home: “Please help us.”
Fireworks have been postponed but not canceled.
Here are a few watermelon related charts that speak to imports and prices over the past few years.