Help U.S. tomato growers in fair market struggle with Mexico

BRADENTON HERALD EDITORIALJuly 8, 2012 

Led by Florida's growers, U.S. tomato producers are again compelled to wage a fair trade fight with Mexico. Complaints that Mexico dumps tomatoes into the American market at prices cheaper than the cost of production have continued for more than a decade.

Now, U.S. growers are petitioning the Commerce Department to terminate an anti-dumping pricing pact described as unenforced.

Once voided, the American industry can file a new complaint against Mexico. The Florida Tomato Exchange, a statewide industry association, is leading that charge.

As the state's top tomato producer with 12,000 acres dedicated to the crop, Manatee County stands to benefit from a stronger trade agreement.

Agriculture is a critical component of the county's economy, too, with an annual economic impact of more than $373 million, according to the Manatee County Farm Bureau -- all the more reason to support American growers in this trade fight.

Palmetto-based growers are well represented on the Florida Tomato Exchange. Jimmy Grainger, an executive with Taylor & Fulton Packaging, is president, and Bob Spencer, vice president of West Coast Tomato, sits on the exchange council.

Florida's Department of Agriculture stands behind the state's growers in urging the Commerce Department to support their request.

Soon after passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, Mexico's exports of vegetables soared -- especially tomatoes. Consumers bought up the less expensive Mexican tomatoes, and Florida growers witnessed a steep decline in business -- in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

According to a 1996 Washington Post report, the number of commercial tomato growers in the Sunshine State plunged from more than 200 in the 1980s to fewer than 70 by the mid-1990s.

That year, 1996, Florida's growers filed a complaint with the International Trade Commission that the lower tariff on Mexican tomatoes instigated by NAFTA brought about the surge in exports -- a claim the ITC rejected.

U.S. growers then pressured the Clinton administration to establish quotas and impose tariffs, but the threat of a trade war dissolved when Mexico finally agreed to a price floor on tomatoes in 2008 and exporters accepted a voluntary quota on sales.

But the pact proved too weak as Mexico's tomato exports into the U.S. surged to "roughly three times the value that they were when the case was first brought" -- to some $1.8 billion last year, Grainger pointed out in a statement.

Mexican growers are dumping tomatoes into the U.S. market at 188 percent below fair market value, exchange executive vice president Reggie Brown told the Reuters news agency.

The U.S. government should work with tomato growers and find a way to create a fair market, else this once thriving segment of American agriculture continue to decline -- into extinction.

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