A new study from The University of Georgia concludes the state’s produce industry and rural communities could experience significant losses due to lack of protection from unfair trade in the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), the proposed deal to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Under NAFTA and the proposed USMCA, fruit and vegetable growers have no remedy or relief mechanism to prevent unfair dumping of below-market-value produce grown in Mexico into the United States market. Mexican government production subsidies, low labor costs and less stringent regulatory guidelines allow Mexico to grow and sell produce at well below Georgia’s production costs. In addition, the Mexican harvest season overlaps directly with Georgia’s vegetable and fruit harvests.
“Last year, we were selling Georgia Grown squash for $12-$16 a box,” said Bill Brim, co-owner of Lewis Taylor Farms in Tift County. “Once Mexican squash hit the U.S. markets, the price per box of squash dropped to $4.50. The box itself cost $1, so it’d be tough to produce a box of squash for $3.50 without government subsidies and cheap labor.”
According to the UGA study, which focused on blueberry and vegetable production, the state is on track to lose nearly $1 billion in annual economic output and over 8,000 jobs in five to eight years. Rural counties would be hardest hit, with some areas including Clinch, Bacon and Echols counties being compared to Great Depression levels or “truly breathtaking losses.”
“What I fear most is that the existing level of Mexican fruit and vegetable imports combined with the potential for additional unrestrained growth could result in ‘going out of business’ signs popping up across a substantial part of rural Georgia and the Southeast. I hope I’m wrong,” said Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black. “Perhaps the UGA study findings will inspire our leaders to find effective, near-term relief measures to ensure the survival of this important segment of the agriculture industry and generations of Georgia farm families.”
The Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association is turning to the Administration and Congress to help find a solution, as Mexican imports are only expected to rise in the coming years.
The new President of Mexico has announced his intention to invest substantially more “seed capital” in the produce sector with a goal of planting one million more hectares (2.5 million acres) in fruit and timber. As a comparison, Georgia has only 28,000-30,000 acres in blueberry production, which produces 80‐90 million pounds in a good year.
Produce farmers across Georgia are anxiously awaiting legislative relief.
“We are at a time in the fruit and vegetable industry where lots of folks are getting discouraged,” said Dick Minor, co-owner of Minor Produce in Leslie, Georgia. “We desperately need Congress to take a stand for the family produce farmer, or we may not be able to pass these farms down to the generation below us. We are counting on the public to continue choosing Georgia Grown produce, and to help us show Congress that we prefer high-quality American products over what is coming out of Mexico.”
The UGA study explored in further detail the job loss and economic devastation of the top 10 blueberry and vegetable producing counties in the state. The full report can be read by clicking here.