By KEVIN DERBY
Florida panhandle tomato growers
This week, the U.S. Commerce Department announced it was suspending an agreement with Mexico on importing fresh tomatoes, garnering applause across the Sunshine State.
As the Commerce Department continues to negotiate with Mexico, U.S. Commerce Sec. Wilbur Ross insisted the agreement, which had been in place since 2013, was not fair to American agriculture.
“The Department of Commerce remains committed to ensuring that American domestic industries are protected from unfair trading practices,” said Ross on Tuesday when the Commerce Department made the announcement. “We remain optimistic that there will be a negotiated solution.”
Michael Schadler, the executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, weighed in on Wednesday.
“We are pleased that the Commerce Department has terminated the tomato suspension agreement, which presided over a very difficult five-year period for the U.S. tomato industry. Although the agreement was created with good intentions, it was never effective in protecting American producers from dumped Mexican tomatoes. As a result, the U.S. industry has declined significantly over the last five years with many tomato growers across the country going out of business,” Schadler insisted.
“Negotiations for a new suspension agreement can still continue even as the antidumping investigation is resumed this month,” he added. “The U.S. tomato industry remains open to a new suspension agreement so long as it is structured in a way that eliminates the loopholes of the previous agreement and has strong enforcement mechanisms. If a new agreement cannot be reached, we look forward to the antidumping investigation finally running its full course.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., applauded the Commerce Department’s actions.
“If there was a lesson in the 2016 elections, it’s that Washington doesn’t understand what middle and working class Americans want,” Rubio said on Tuesday. “For years, Washington has exported jobs and opportunities abroad to facilitate imports of cheaper consumer goods, including Mexican fruits and vegetables. Today’s tomato suspension agreement termination is just one more example of how this administration is working on behalf of the American people in ways the rest of Washington still doesn’t get. President Trump and Secretary Ross don’t want to stop imports, they want to promote a healthier balance between American production and consumption, and between U.S. imports and exports. In the long run, both U.S. tomato growers and consumers will benefit greatly from this administration’s insistence on free, fair, and reciprocal trade.”
Earlier this year, Rubio and U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., who sits on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee rounded up more than 45 members of Congress to sign a letter to Ross, calling on him to end the agreement, insisting it “has allowed unfair competition to increasingly put U.S. tomato growers out of business” and “terminating the current agreement would restart a U.S. anti-dumping investigation on fresh tomatoes from Mexico while giving Commerce more leverage to try to secure a new suspension agreement that is both effective and enforceable.”
The Florida delegation offered strong support for Rubio and Yoho with Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, Democrat U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, Val Demings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Alcee Hastings, Al Lawson, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Stephanie Murphy, Donna Shalala, Darren Soto, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson and Republican U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis, Vern Buchanan, Mario Diaz-Balart, Neal Dunn, Matt Gaetz, Bill Posey, John Rutherford, Ross Spano, Greg Steube, Michael Waltz and Dan Webster signing on.
The Fresh Produce Association of the Americas (FPAA) has defended the agreement.
“The demand for vine-ripened Mexican tomatoes has built up a supply chain that supports over 33,000 U.S. jobsand nearly $3 billion in U.S. GDP,” the FPAA tweeted at Ross back in March.
FPAA President Lance Jungmeyer also pushed back at the decision and took aim at tomato growers in Florida.
“The truth appears to be that leaders of the Florida Tomato Exchange (FTE) are on a campaign to portray themselves as the victims to trade while leveraging U.S. trade law to corner the market and drive out competition,” said Jungmeyer.
“It is beyond ironic that the growers which grow the largest percentage of Florida tomatoes also own and finance some of the largest growing operations in Mexico,” Jungmeyer insisted.
Rubio and Yoho responded to FPAA, slamming the criticism as “short-sighted.”
“Washington’s willingness to sacrifice entire domestic industries and local production just to shave pennies off the costs that American consumers might pay for products is one of the main reasons why Donald Trump is president today. He rightly understood there is no dignity for American workers in buying cheaper, imported goods without domestic production supporting jobs, paychecks, and livelihoods,” Rubio said in March. “Florida benefits greatly from fairly traded imports through some of the best seaport infrastructure in the world. Unfortunately, Mexican seasonal fruit and vegetable imports continue to pour in across the southern border with little regard for the rules that are supposed to guarantee that freely imported goods are also fairly traded.
“The faulty economic foundation created by this unfair foreign trade continues to enrich Mexican producers and domestic importers and distributors at the expense of domestic producers,” Rubio added. “We cannot stand by as some profit from unfair fruit and vegetable imports directly at the expense of their neighbors and countrymen. Fortunately, President Trump and Secretary Ross understand the importance of an economy that values both domestic production and fairly traded import goods. After all, free, fair, and reciprocal trade should not just be a slogan, it must be the only way of doing business with the United States of America.”
“For too long, our domestic tomato industry has been harmed by Mexican producers dumping tomatoes into the U.S. market. I am confident that the Department of Commerce made the right decision to withdraw from the Tomato Suspension Agreement so these unfair trading practices can be properly addressed. Our domestic producers must have a level playing field, and that requires the enforcement of rules that guarantee fair trade,” Yoho said.
Other Republicans in the Florida delegation also weighed in.
“Florida’s tomato farmers have been looking for relief from unfair trade practices in Mexico for many years. The opportunity for our growers to fairly compete is finally here. I commend the administration for standing up for the people of Florida,” said Diaz-Balart.
“Unfair trade practices are hurting our local growers and hindering their ability to compete. This must be stopped. Much like tomato growers, strawberry growers in my district are under attack from illegal ‘dumping’ practices and are unable to defend themselves under present treaties. I will continue to stand with my colleagues in the House and Senate in coming to the aid of our farmers and ensure that both the administration and our nation, are being treated fairly and just under any new trade agreement,” Spano said.
“The data is overwhelmingly clear, Mexico has been waging an assault on southeastern tomato producers for years– and getting away with it. I applaud the administration for putting domestic growers first and stand by their decision to terminate the suspension agreement,” said Dunn.
“For decades, Florida’s growers have tried to compete on an unbalanced playing field. After years of failed negotiations, termination of the suspension agreement has finally given our growers a fighting chance against these unfair trade practices,” said Waltz.