Import fruits and vegetables represent a bitter harvest for the Sunshine State agriculture sector, and squash and cucumbers are no exception to the rule.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried sounded the alarm Thursday in testimony to the U.S. International Trade Commission, following up on previous warnings about berries and bell peppers bellied out of the market by lowball prices from foreign competition.
“Sometimes the labor cost in Mexico is 25 cents a day,” Fried noted during testimony at the beginning of a day-long meeting about pressures on the industry.
For Florida, squash and cucumbers are just two of the farm commodities suffering because of competitive advantages for Mexican farmers.
Of Florida commodities, 20 of 24 saw market share decreases since 2000, and more than half saw a doubling share for Mexican imports. COVID-19 accelerated pressures from the import side, with imports continuing to surge in.
In her remarks, Fried described the “devastation” caused by “unfair foreign trade practices going unchecked,” causing an “economic fallout that has wreaked havoc” on the sector.
Florida cucumbers offer one example of how foreign pressures have devastated the Fresh from Florida imprimatur. In-state producers controlled 19% of the domestic market in 2000, but by 2020, held just over 4% of market share. Production tumbled also, even amid a 75% increase in demand.
“Mexico increased its volume and market share in the United States during this time period,” Fried said.
And Florida is not alone, Fried noted, with the cucumber sector in Georgia and Michigan likewise sharply down.
Squash is also suffering: 91% of increase in the market is in imports from Mexico alone.
The cucumber industry lost $562 million in cash receipts between 2015 and 2020, with an overall impact over $1.1 billion.
“The human toll is too often secondary to economic data,” Fried said, describing farmers whose “worlds are being turned upside down by decades of inaction.”
Fried described a previous U.S. Trade International Commission ruling on blueberries as “extremely disappointing,” before going on with questions and answers to outline some of the existential pressures faced by the agriculture sector.
She noted the pressures created by increased demand for land “when our growers can’t compete” have led to a grim “crossroads for a lot of farmers,” especially smaller “generational farms.”
“We’re losing a lot of farms,” Fried said.
Bigger corporate operations are mechanizing their labor force, especially with the constitutionally mandated minimum wage hike adding pressure. But not every farm has that kind of capital.
Smaller to midsize farms, meanwhile, face labor shortages.
“These are hard conditions. Outside all day. Long hours. Not a lot of people want to take these jobs,” Fried said.