Florida fruit and vegetable farmers, including tomato growers in Manatee County, worry they will continue to lose market share to their Mexican counterparts under the new trade deal
Democrats and Republicans came together last month to push an overhaul of the North American Free Trade Agreement through the U.S. House, a rare instance of bipartisan agreement on major legislation.
The new trade deal — known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA — was approved by 193 Democrats and 192 Republicans.
Florida’s congressional delegation reflected the bipartisan consensus on the bill. Of the 27-member delegation, 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans voted in favor of USMCA. Only Gainesville Republican Ted Yoho — who is not running for reelection — voted against the trade deal, which is one of President Donald Trump’s top priorities.
But the bipartisan unity belied deep opposition to the bill within one of Florida’s most important industries.
As USMCA heads toward likely approval in the Senate and Trump’s signature, Florida farmers are continuing to raise concerns about the agreement.
“We have stated those concerns repeatedly over the last several years,” said Florida Farm Bureau spokesman G.B. Crawford.
Citing a University of Florida study, Crawford said Florida’s fruit and vegetable industry — which has been hit hard by NAFTA — will continue to struggle under USMCA.
Mexico is likely to keep increasing imports of fresh fruits and vegetables to the United States under the new trade deal, including tomatoes, which are still a big crop in Manatee County, and strawberries, which are a major crop in Hillsborough County. Cheaper Mexican imports would present challenges for Florida growers.
“We stand by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences study that was released last summer,” Crawford said, noting that it “warned” about economic loses for certain Florida fruit and vegetable growers “if the USMCA is adopted by Congress.”
Florida farmers compete with their Mexican counterparts to supply the U.S. with fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter months. Under NAFTA, Florida has lost ground to Mexico, where labor is cheaper, environmental regulations are more lax and the industry receives government subsidies.
The IFAS study stated that between 2010 and 2018 Florida’s tomato, strawberry and bell pepper crops declined by 58%, 22% and 27%, respectively, when measured by total production value.
During the same period, imports of tomatoes, strawberries and bell peppers to the United States from Mexico increased by 23%, 79% and 56%, respectively, when measured by metric tons.
Critics of USMCA, such as the Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, complain that the new deal does not alter how NAFTA regulated fruits and vegetable imports from Mexico, leaving in place trade practices that Florida farmers loath.
That likely will lead to a continued decline in certain Florida crops and corresponding job losses, according to the IFAS study.
The study looked at what could happen if U.S. imports of Mexican fruits and vegetables continue to grow at rates seen over the last decade. It concluded that Florida strawberry, tomato and bell pepper farmers would lose $88 million if Mexican imports of the three crops grow by a combined 25%, and $389 million if imports grow by 75%.
Florida job losses would reach 1,556 under the 25% growth scenario and 7,882 under the 75% growth scenario.
The lack of protection for Florida farmers in the USMCA has led both Republicans and Democrats to criticize the deal.
“This agreement will not solve the failures of NAFTA with regards to the seasonal competition of agricultural produce that caused our fruit and vegetable farmers to lose a large share of the U.S. market to Mexican producers,” Yoho said in a statement after USMCA passed the House. “Absent proper trade enforcement tools, we are maintaining the status quo that will continue to harm Florida producers.”
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, also opposes the trade deal, saying it is “deeply disappointing that seasonal protections were not included in this USMCA implementing legislation.”
But the bipartisan opposition to USMCA from elected officials such as Fried and Yoho has been drowned out by the bipartisan support among Florida’s congressional delegation.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, co-chairs the Florida delegation. He touted the trade deal when it cleared the House last month
“The announcement today marks an important step towards finally updating and modernizing the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, which supports nearly $1.3 trillion in economic activity and more than 12 million American jobs,” Buchanan said in a statement.
Buchanan represents Manatee County, which historically has been one of the top tomato producers in Florida and the nation.
“In Manatee County, vegetable production is still the number one agricultural enterprise,” according to the Manatee County Farm Bureau website. “There are approximately 55,700 acres grown each year at an annual farm-gate value of over $290 million… Tomatoes are ‘king,’ with about 12,000 acres grown during the 2011 season.”
Tomato growers have been devastated by NAFTA.
Manatee County tomato farmer Gary Reeder told the Herald-Tribune in March that he has seen the county’s tomato industry “basically cut in half” during his lifetime.
“That legislation has really put a dagger in the heart of Florida’s fresh vegetable industry,” Manatee County farmer Alan Jones said of NAFTA.
Jones farms green beans, potatoes and citrus, crops that can be mechanically harvested. That means he is not impacted as much by Mexican imports because one of the biggest advantages Mexican producers have is cheaper labor.
But Jones shares his fellow Florida farmers’ disdain for NAFTA, and their concerns that USMCA will not be an improvement.
Jones said Florida farmers and others throughout the sunbelt have taken a back seat to farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere who benefit from exporting crops such as corn and apples to Mexico, and to auto industry workers who also could stand to benefit from the deal, which is expected to shift more auto production back to the U.S..
But even if Florida farmers lose out, Jones said USMCA is still “a step in the right direction.” He worries that too many good jobs in manufacturing and other industries have been flowing to Mexico.
“It’s better than it was,” he said of the new deal.
The Trump administration has taken some steps outside the USMCA framework to try and address some of the concerns of U.S. farmers who produce crops in the winter months that compete with Mexican crops.
The U.S. Department of Commerce negotiated an agreement with Mexico late last year to try and limit so-called tomato “dumping” into the U.S. market at cheap prices. In exchange for the U.S. not imposing new tariffs, Mexican producers will raise prices and submit to inspections.
Asked about Florida farmers’ concerns about USMCA, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio cited the tomato deal as an example of how the state’s agricultural interests are being protected by Trump.
“I am confident the Trump administration understands the challenges facing Florida’s agricultural industry,” Rubio said in a statement. “Earlier this year, the Department of Commerce came to an agreement with Mexican tomato growers that should serve as a model for helping to rebalance agricultural trade with Mexico… I will continue to work with the administration to ensure growers in Florida and across the U.S. are able to fairly compete in our domestic market.”
U.S. Sen. Rick Scott’s office said the senator has pressed Trump’s trade negotiator on the concerns raised by Florida farmers.
“Senator Scott has made it clear to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer that Florida’s seasonal produce growers have been hurt by Mexico’s unfair trade practices,” according to a statement from Scott’s office. “Senator Scott appreciates the Trump Administration’s focus on reviewing trade agreements to make sure they are fair to American companies, and will continue to work with USTR to make sure these concerns are addressed and Florida growers are protected.”