Vegetable growers:NAFTA killing business

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Published: September 11,2000

MIZE — Mississippi vegetable growers have an issue similar to the catfish producers in the Delta who want imports of Vietnamese catfish labeled as to country of origin. The growers believe that produce imported from Mexico ought to be clearly labeled as to country of origin.

Clyde Magee of Mize says he was selling $200,000 worth of tomatoes per year before NAFTA crippled the tomato market in Mississippi. This year he expects to take losses in the range of $30,000 to $40,000 on his crops due to cheap imports of Mexican vegetables allowed by NAFTA.

Magee believes that if U.S. consumers realized that the tomatoes and other vegetables they are buying are being produced in Mexico with child labor and toxic chemicals that are banned in the U.S., then consumers would instead buy U.S. produce.

Mississippi vegetable growers, joined by their counterparts in Florida, believe the government has broken promises made prior to the passage of NAFTA that it would prevent unfair dumping of winter vegetables into the U.S.

Magee and a representative from the Florida Farmers and Suppliers Coalition (www.floridafarmers.org) met with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss) on the issue earlier this year to discuss their concerns. Lott responded with a letter to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman requesting that anti-dumping cases be brought against Mexico, Canada and the Netherlands.

“I am concerned over the dumping of winter vegetables into the U.S. market by Mexico, Canada and the Netherlands,” Lott wrote. “Despite the assurance of President Clinton, more than 300 farms have gone out of business in Florida alone. I am aware that many producers in the South, including Mississippi, have suffered a similar fate, and I urge you to take appropriate, emergency actions that promise to provide relief to U.S. producers.”

Lott recommended an investigation into remedies possible under current trade agreements saying he was concerned that imports of winter vegetables from foreign countries have increased dramatically since NAFTA while domestic production has declined.

“The protection of these producers through existing provisions in the law would serve American farmers and consumers in the long run,” Lott said.

Magee said that NAFTA was supposed to provide free, fair trade. But he said there is nothing fair about the great disparity in labor costs—$60 to $100 per day in the U.S. compared to $3 a day or less in Mexico — and chemical use. He said factories in Mexico still manufacture DDT and other cheap pesticides that are banned in the U.S., which also puts U.S. farmers at a competitive disadvantage.

“We can’t compete against that,” Magee said.

Ironically, Magee switched over to truck farming after the bottom fell out of the soybean market in the 1980s. Things looked good in the early 1990s prior to the passage of NAFTA. A tomato packing shed was built in nearby Taylorsville. The packing shed has now closed.

Consolidation of grocery store chains has also hurt. With fewer and fewer sources to sell to, prices have been driven down by the lack of competition.

“We’re not getting the price for our products that we should,” Magee said. “I don’t know of any farmers who are making money. And, if anybody tells you they are, they’re lying.”

Things have deteriorated so much that last year Magee had to deed the 700-acre farm he has been farming for 24 years back to the Farmer’s Home Administration. He has an opportunity to buy back the farm in the future, but that isn’t likely without a market turnaround.

Another vegetable farmer in Smith County, James R. Ford, agrees there is a bleak outlook for growers like himself.

“As far as I’m concerned, NAFTA has been a total disaster,” said Ford, a Korean War veteran and third generation farmer. “They have just about wiped out the vegetable man in Mississippi and the rest of the U.S. The American farmer is going bankrupt today throughout the U.S. If we had fair labor and fair chemicals, we could compete. But they have cheap chemicals and labor in Mexico. I’d like to see labeling laws so people would know where their produce comes from. They spray things on their fields in Mexico that if we knew about as a consumer, we wouldn’t put it anywhere near our mouths.”

Ford also shares the concerns about consolidations in agriculture, the large corporations that in some cases dominate purchases of commodities.

“We need to protect our growers or we’re not going to have many left,” he said. “They are importing food that is less than our cost of production. I guess what they want to do is have one big corporation in the food business because they are taking farmers out right and left. All I can say is this country was not made great by big mega-farm corporations. It was made great by the small farmers who came in and settled the country and fought fiercely for liberty. What we are coming to today is not what we fought for. We’re under a tyranny.”

Although figures aren’t available for vegetable sales lost to NAFTA in Mississippi, the Florida farmers group estimates losses of $1 billion per year due to Mexican imports.

“There have been a lot of casualties out of this,” Magee said. “Between NAFTA and consolidation of grocery stories, Wal-Mart and all these superstores, they are coming in and wiping everyone out. If they are only game in town to sell to, that keeps a lid on prices. There is no competition. It is the same way in the grain business. There is no competition as to who buys your product. They can tell you what they are going to give you. It is discouraging. We need competition in the marketplace and also we need to secure our borders. Those are two very important things we need to do and small farmers will make it.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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