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Southeastern produce growers say they need trade relief

Heard on: Marketplace

Joe Cornelius, left, and Russ Goodman, south Georgia blueberry farmers, at Goodman’s blueberry farm in Cogdell, Georgia. Cornelius says in five years, the blueberry industry in Georgia might be done. Emma Hurt

The so-called “new NAFTA,” or USMCA trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada, went into effect in July. But growers in one segment of American agriculture say they did not have their concerns met in that agreement: the southeastern produce industry. 

In response, the federal government promised to release an alternative plan to help the industry within 60 days of the USMCA’s implementation date, or Sept. 1. 

Growers like Russ Goodman said help cannot come soon enough. Goodman, a seventh-generation south Georgia farmer in Cogdell, and his family started planting blueberries in 2000.

“In the flatwoods down here, this is kind of like the place God sort of ordained to grow blueberries,” he said. “We’ve got a heavy organic matter soil. This is good blueberry country down here.” 

When they first planted, he said, blueberries were selling for about $8 a pound. Ten years ago, prices started dropping to $6.50 a pound, said Joe Cornelius, Goodman’s friend and fellow blueberry farmer.

“This year, the same week in April, we were at $2.48 or $2.50,” said Cornelius, a fourth-generation farmer. “I’m not saying the $6.50 was the right number, but $2.50 sure ain’t.” He said they need at least $3 per pound to make the books work. 

Competition from Mexico

Cornelius and Goodman said they simply can’t match the price of the competition, blueberries coming from Mexico, because of the labor and environmental regulations American farmers have to abide by.

The minimum hourly wage for the foreign H-2A workers they have to bring in to cover their labor needs is about $12 per hour. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, estimated in 2018 that the average pay for Mexican workers was $16 per day. 

Cornelius said the situation is dire for Georgia blueberry farmers. “Five years, and it might be the industry in Georgia over with,” he said.

“What we need is a level playing field,” Goodman said. “And I don’t know how we go about doing that. You know, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Last year, agriculture economists at the University of Georgia predicted the state is “on track to lose nearly one billion dollars in annual economic output and over 8,000 jobs unless something occurs to slow down the increase in low-priced Mexican imports of blueberries and vegetables.” In some produce-dependent counties, researchers predicted, losses “will likely reach economic damage rarely seen since the Great Depression.”

A similar report from the University of Florida warned of possible losses in Florida of up to 7,882 jobs and $761 million in industry output.

This issue isn’t new in the region.

Ben Burkett, a fourth-generation farmer in Petal, Mississippi, said he already lived through something similar after the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect in 1994. He and other family farmers used to fill large contracts for cucumbers and peppers to supply grocery stores and restaurants.

“We could count on that money,” he said, “You could take that money and finance the rest of your crop.”

But those contracts dried up with cheaper Mexican competition. Since then, he said many of his peers have gone out of business. He now grows for smaller specialty markets that prioritize, and will pay more for, local produce, like high-end restaurants.   

“Something that people should pay attention to

Gopi Munisamy, professor of agriculture and applied economics the University of Georgia, said the influx of Mexican produce over the last decade is one of the highest import growth rates he’s ever seen.

This is a very unique situation, this amount of imports,” he said. “This volume coming in, in a very short time, is something that people should pay attention to.”

Produce farmers in Georgia and Florida in particular, and their members of Congress, have lobbied for help. They’d hoped for relief in the USMCA and instead received the promise for an alternative plan, expected this week.

Navigating the issue is tricky for the government because the industry nationwide isn’t in agreement. Two California produce industry groups, the California Fresh Fruit Association and the Western Growers for example, supported the USMCA as is. 

“A blueberry grower in Georgia, for instance, has a lot different challenges and maybe opportunities than a blueberry grower in Michigan, California or even Florida,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association. “Because that’s not a ‘one size fits all’ like other agriculture products we think of like cotton, corn and rice.”

He said the issue is even more complicated because changing trade policy to help the southeastern growers could negatively affect others.

“Those countries that are importing [U.S. goods] who are feeling threatened are going to start retaliating in ways that hurt people across the board, not just in fresh produce,” he said. “It’s not right. It’s unfair, but we need to find better mechanisms to address these issues.” 

Guenther’s group is instead advocating for the federal government to invest in the industry to keep growers competitive and profitable. For example, he suggested funding for research into more plant varieties that could be harvested by machines to reduce labor costs, or federal help finding additional export markets for the growers’ products.

Finding new machine-harvestable varieties is something farmers like Goodman and Cornelius have been trying to do on their own in their quest to stay profitable. 

But to Goodman, the fight is about more than just income: It’s about preserving a way of life and the local, rural economies sustained by agriculture.

“It’s not about a checkbook or how much money you make. It’s about a covenant that you made with those that came before you that you try not to break,” he said.

It’s also, he said, about national security.

“You know, we talk about being dependent upon other countries for oil, and that kind of thing, but imagine being dependent upon other countries for your food supply.”

Without help from the government, he and Cornelius said their only hope is that the American public will choose to buy American-grown products, even if it costs a little more.

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