Why Florida Farmers Want to Kill Nafta

U.S. corn and soybean exports soar, but fruit and vegetable sales falter.

Fieldworkers sort the seedlings they will plant in Duette, Fla.

Photographer: Michelle Bruzzese for Bloomberg Businessweek

Duette, Fla., a tiny farm town about 50 miles east of St. Petersburg, averages about 52 inches of annual rainfall. This year it’s ahead of schedule, with 63 inches since June, when the rainy season began. For Gary Reeder and other tomato farmers, that’s slowed down everything and threatened their ability to bring the harvest in on time. “We’re way behind on spraying. We’re behind on everything,” Reeder says as his F-150 pickup churns through ankle-deep mud. But too much rain isn’t Reeder’s biggest worry—it’s Mexico. “We can handle the weather,” he says. “It’s harder to beat unfair competition.”

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.

A worker checks planted seedlings.
Photographer: Michelle Bruzzese for Bloomberg Businessweek

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.”

It’s not only labor costs that make it cheaper to grow fruit in Mexico. Pesticide rules also differ, another competitive disadvantage for fruit and vegetable farmers whose crops need more hands-on care than genetically modified grain and oilseed crops. “When people think of farming, they think of corn and soybeans,” Reeder says. “People have no idea what it takes to get a tomato on a grocery shelf. [Corn] farmers have a whole different set of interests, and that’s why we end up on the outside of this debate.”

Florida growers have a list of demands they’d like a new trade deal to address, including putting quotas on Mexican imports, aligning Mexico’s food safety and environmental rules with the U.S.’s, raising wages for Mexican workers, and demanding the country cut its farm subsidies. Mexico’s government says wages are off the table and that the nation has always cooperated with the U.S. on food safety issues. “Attempting to restrict Mexican imports to the U.S. market through managed trade schemes [is] totally rejected by Mexico,” said Raúl Urteaga Trani, general coordinator of international affairs for Mexico’s agriculture ministry, in an email.

Gary Reeder stands amid rows of tomatoes.
Photographer: Michelle Bruzzese for Bloomberg Businessweek

The last thing U.S. farm lobbyists want is for Florida’s problems to hold up a Nafta renegotiation or to change the status quo too much. Mexico has become the top buyer of U.S. corn, by far the most valuable crop in the U.S. Although farm groups would like any new trade deal to be reached quickly, they acknowledge the concerns of Florida growers. “We do have a problem in Florida,” says Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farmer group. But he says the state’s issues have to be balanced with the interests of the rest of the country.

Florida farmers’ strongest ally may be President Trump. As Nafta negotiations kicked off on Aug. 16, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Trump isn’t looking for “a mere tweaking of a few provisions” and that “Nafta has fundamentally failed many Americans and needs major improvements.”

Workers set wooden stakes next to planted seedlings.
Photographer: Michelle Bruzzese for Bloomberg Businessweek

Trump’s Nafta focus has been on the loss of American manufacturing jobs, largely in the U.S. Rust Belt, but Florida’s status as a crucial swing state may help its farmers get his attention. Their plight has taken on more political importance in the state, particularly as Florida’s agriculture commissioner, Adam Putnam, has emerged as the front-runner for Florida’s Republican nomination for governor in 2018. Putnam, who advised Mitt Romney on trade and agriculture issues during his 2012 presidential campaign, has taken Mexico to task for the alleged dumping of fruits and vegetables in the U.S.

Back on his farm in Duette, Reeder says Florida growers are watching the Nafta debates as closely as the weather forecast. “We don’t have a choice on whether to fight this,” he says. “This is tomato country. We’ll keep fighting as hard as we can until we can’t do it anymore.” —With Eric Martin

    BOTTOM LINE - The U.S. Corn Belt doesn’t want to rock the Nafta status quo too much, but Florida fruit and vegetable farmers have deep concerns with the treaty.
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