The federal government will ask the International Trade Commission to investigate the harm imported blueberries have caused U.S. growers. This could potentially open the door for tariffs. Photo courtesy of the Georgia Dept. of Economic Development

The Trump administration says it will investigate complaints from Southern produce growers – including Georgia farmers – that Mexico’s trade practices are putting them at an unfair disadvantage.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

Fruit and vegetable farmers had pressed unsuccessfully for protections in President Donald Trump’s United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, that replaced the more than two-decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement that was also silent on the growing strain on U.S. produce growers.

The omission prompted one vegetable farmer and Republican state lawmaker, Rep. Sam Watson, to last year call produce farmers “collateral damage” in the trade deal. Watson said the federal government’s announcement is a step in the right direction toward helping them.

“We’re all excited about it,” Watson said Thursday. “They knew there were concerns and we’ve told them there were concerns, but yet we hadn’t really gotten anything. We’re getting somewhere now.”

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Tifton Republican who argued for more protections for produce farmers, said the federal plan was “an important step forward in rectifying” the problem.

“For too long, countries like Mexico have taken advantage of loopholes in our trade agreements and flooded our domestic markets with cheap government-subsidized produce at prices below the cost of production, causing serious financial injury to American growers,” Scott said in a statement Wednesday.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Commerce released a report Tuesday outlining its plan, which includes asking the International Trade Commission to investigate the harm imported blueberries have caused U.S. growers. This could potentially open the door for tariffs.

Georgia is regularly a top blueberry producer in the country, with the state’s total crop valued at about $304 million.

“Them taking these steps is huge for us because there’s a lot at risk on everybody’s part,” Watson said, referring to potential retaliatory tariffs on American crops, like corn.

The report said U.S. officials would also “pursue senior-level government-to-government discussions” with Mexico in the next three months to address industry concerns with imported Mexican strawberries, bell peppers and other seasonal and perishable products. An investigation into other crops could come later.

“We see this as being a crisis situation for the industry,” Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said Friday. “And we’re very appreciative that USTR, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce have come out with this plan to look at how to solve some of the issues with our seasonal and perishable products.”

Mexican farmers have been able to extend their growing season for blueberries through government-subsidized greenhouses and other protected growing spaces. Mexico’s labor costs are also about one-tenth of U.S. labor costs.  

A 2019 report from the University of Georgia found that Georgia could lose nearly $1 billion in economic input and more than 8,000 jobs in the new trade deal. The impact would hurt some rural economies the most, causing economic damage on “the scale of the Great Depression” for some rural counties, the report said.

But Scott, the congressman, said there is also a burden on American grocers.

“America’s grocery retailers are posting record profits while American farm revenues are at record lows,” he said in a statement. “Retailers have the responsibility to stop stocking products from countries that engage in unfair trade practices against the American farm family.”

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing...