Homestead tomato growers wary of Mexican competition

miamiherald.com; BY ANDREA TORRES: “It isn’t as easy to find work as it used to be,” Rodriguez said as she cleaned her hands, “but then again, there was a time when my family owned their farm in Guatemala. Everything changes. I have cousins working in Jalisco [Mexico] who have no problem finding work there.”

The Obama administration appears to be siding with Homestead growers competing with cheap Mexicans tomatoes during the winter and early spring harvest, which begins in October and ends in June. The administration and Mexico agreed to higher minimum tomato prices – a step aimed at protecting domestic growers from cheaper Mexican produce.

USDA officials said consumers will see little to no change in pricing. Florida’s tomato industry leaders say this is not enough.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, signed into law in 1994, “has caused at least a dozen growers to go out of business in the Homestead area and four major packing houses have closed,” said Anthony DiMare, of DiMare companies. “This trade agreement has been anything but fair.”

DiMare helps to run the produce business that his grandfather started with his two great-uncles about 85 years ago. He said he has been forced to diversify to survive. The now Homestead-based DiMare is one of the nation’s largest tomato producers. He said their packing and related operations in Homestead employ about 1,000 people.

“The Mexican growers have a very strong lobby and lobbied very, very hard to keep the suspension agreement in place,” DiMare said.

DiMare said he is concerned the new floor prices set in the suspension agreement don’t reflect Mexicans’ real price of production. A few days after the agreement was set, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that two-layer cartons of vine-ripened tomatoes from Mexico were $11.95 to $13, up from $8.95 to $12.95 last year.

The U.S. Department of Commerce “cannot determine equity in selling products without knowing production costs,” DiMare said. “The new price increase may not be enough.”

The suspension agreement prevented Florida farmers from pursuing a suit against Mexican growers for alleged unfair trade measures.

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