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Hurricane NAFTA

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Posted: Friday, April 13, 2018 10:00 am | Updated: 10:01 am, Fri Apr 13, 2018.

Most hurricanes only last for a day or two, this one has been hitting South Dade for two decades.

   In August of 1992, Hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc in Miami-Dade County, but in particular South Dade. The local farming community suffered heavy losses in personal property and machinery, but planting of winter crops would not start until later in the fall, giving farmers time to prepare.

   Little did they know a larger storm lay ahead, one that would last for decades, possibly leading to total decimation of their livelihood. This storm would be named NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and today it continues its path of destroying South Florida agriculture.

   Started under the Clinton Administration, this pact is a trade agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico. Grain farmers, who are subsidized by the U.S. Government, have done well with NAFTA since their type of farming involves machinery and a small labor force.

   However, vegetable farmers who operate without subsidies, require a large labor force to harvest their crops. Mexico, with a massive, cheap labor force chooses to buy grain from the U.S. and concentrate on growing crops that are labor intensive. As a result, wherein the past 30,000 acres were dedicated to tomatoes in Miami-Dade County, less than 1,000 acres are currently cultivated as domestic food sources are dwindling, the federal government continues to turn a blind eye on this problem potentially affecting our national security. Here’s how it works. According to second generation South Dade Farmer Sal Finocchiaro, “a Mexican laborer makes about $8 per day while a U. S. worker receives a minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. Thus, the labor expense for a Florida farmer is over 10 times higher. Combine that with our greater cost of land, higher prices of regulated fertilizers and insecticides plus EPA regulation and you have a 25-pound box of tomatoes with a break even point of $10. Meanwhile, the Mexican farmer has inexpensive land, cheap labor including use of children, unregulated use of inexpensive chemicals that are prohibited in the United States and little or no health and quality control.”

   Not only is Mexico running away with our tomato market but they are applying the same principles to other crops including beans and squash. Finocchiaro spoke of another dangerous issue stemming from the trade inbalance - Mexican truck drivers are allowed to enter and deliver up to 25 miles inside our borders without inspection. At that point, only 2% of the trucks entering the U.S. are opened by government officials. It has been documented that some drivers have been caught smuggling drugs and illegal immigrants, which of course adds to their already inflated profits.

   Finocchiaro owns S & L Farms with a partner.  Finocchiaro answered without reservation, “We used to farm 7,000 acres but we are down to 2,000. We no longer produce regular tomatoes but farm about 180 acres of grape tomatoes. Looking back, we had a terrible year in 2005, lost lots of money due to two hurricanes but, my dad and his partner bailed us out. He told me to lock the gate and sell off the land and assets. At that point, I was 35 years old and farming was my chosen career. Against his advice I kept on farming, making a living, but the last three years have not been good.”

   For a fact, farming in South Florida is in such a downward spiral that many financial institutions are hesitant to loan growers money to plant next seasons crops. Finocchiaro remarked, “Farmers cannot continue to dip into their life savings. Our hope lies with President Trump and Congress to somehow work together to modify NAFTA otherwise farmers like me and my partner will become a thing of the past…just don’t know how long we can hang on.”

   On my way home I stopped at the Farmers Market in Florida City where I was greeted by Pete Johnson of Quality First Produce. When I asked Johnson about the lack of activity at the packing houses, he pointed to the large building to the south.

   “That building covers 20% of the market. It was closed due to lack of enough locally grown produce. The building to the north has two giant coolers with nothing in them. The number of acres being farmed has decreased drastically. Even when the remaining farmers have crops, as prices dip below costs they can’t afford to pick them NAFTA is to blame. One of the local grocery chains just received green beans from Mexico that were packaged in Georgia while we have fresh beans growing right here. Doesn’t make sense does it?”

   Johnson took me into one of his sparsely used warehouses showing me beautiful tomatoes from local grower Kern Carpenter. I bought four 25 pound boxes at $5.00 per box…that’s 20 cents a pound. Johnson explained, “It takes Kern $10 per box to break even. Out of that, $4 is for picking and boxing. When he sells them at $5 he still loses $5 dollars but if he doesn’t pick he would lose $6 for each unpicked box. Either way it doesn’t look good for the tomato grower.” Johnson continued, “Though there is a floor price (minimum price) of $8.32 per box on tomatoes, it is common practice for billing to be done at $8.32 on half the amount of boxes delivered, thus many American produce brokers will knowingly receive the second half free, making their “real cost” $4.16 per box.”

   "Meanwhile the brokers and grocery outlet still maintains the same selling price regardless of what they pay per pound. As a rule of thumb, they do not pass the savings on to the consumer.” Figuring the markup, I shook my head knowing that the price of regular tomatoes rarely dips below $2.50.

THE HIDDEN SIDE OF THE STORY

   Charles LaPradd is the agricultural liaison between the farmer and Miami-Dade County Government. Charles affirmed the bleak outlook for the Florida farmer unless NAFTA is modified, but he added a new angle to the story. Yes, NAFTA poses a problem but LaPradd feels we need to share the blame with some of our American produce companies.

   Over the years, Mexico has softened its stance on land ownership by non-Mexican citizens. Foreigners can now obtain 99 year leases on land inside Mexico and many American packing houses and produce brokers are jumping on the opportunity to invest in farming south of the border. It’s a double edge sword. Push to maintain U.S. farming by fighting a seemingly hopeless battle against NAFTA or prepare for what seems to be the future…Mexico production.

   To those investors it’s a battle for survival laced together with greed since the prices to consumers remain high regardless of savings to the brokers and grocery chains. But there’s more incentives for them to turn to Mexico. False billing on number of boxes received plus claims the crops received are not “Grade A” thus produce prices can be renegotiated and sold as seconds below the floor price. It may not be legal but if you own the farm and control the paperwork who can stop the this type of internal fraud.

   LaPradd suggested googling the LA Times for a heartbreaking education on the life of a Mexican farm worker who lives in deplorable conditions and usually owes money at the end of the season forcing a return. It is estimated that over 100,000 children are forced to work the fields side by side with adults. Here we would call that slavery.

   LaPradd pulled another bit of information “from his hat.” Remember the 60,000 acres of limes that were destroyed by our government because of the canker scare a decade ago. In those days, when limes were cheap, federal law required a 42% juice content. When U.S. supplies no longer existed, prices rose due to lack of competition and required juice percentages were disregarded to the benefit of Mexican growers.

   LaPradd noted, “This is a blueprint of what is going to happen if our vegetable growers are forced out of existence, higher prices for lesser quality. It's time to act now, for once the domestic producers are gone there will be no turning back.”

IT’S NOT JUST THE FARMERS

   While driving home I called Benny’s Automotive of Florida City, knowing they service farm trucks and equipment. Benny Robaina responded to my question, “If the farming industry is destroyed in South Dade I will lose a substantial portion of my business.”

   That statement sparked the idea that there are many directly related businesses that would suffer including vendors of trucks and farm equipment. What about the trucking industry when there is nothing transport?

A PLAN OF ATTACK

    Iowa Public Television’s Market to Market series, which highlights the farming community, came all the way to South Dade to interview our farmers for an episode titled “The Florida Tomato Farmer and NAFTA." (Iptv.org/MarketToMarket)

   View it online and ask yourself how this is being allowed to happen to our farming industry without more coverage from local, state and national media. When the South Florida public television affiliate was contacted, they were not aware of the program being produced. Could it be they feel people don’t care enough to worry as long as their bellies are full?

  What are our State Officials doing to educate Congress on the Federal level? It seems that South Dade's fate may lie with to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

   The News Service of Florida released a story on Monday stating that last week, Florida Agriculture Commissioner and Republican candidate for Governor Adam Putnam sent a letter to Lighthizer that backed President Donald Trump’s push for a “more equitable North American Free Trade Agreement” with Canada and Mexico.

    “As you are aware, producers of perishable and seasonal agricultural products in Florida and other regions have been decimated by unfair trading practices resulting in a strong and unprecedented growth in imports from Mexico,” Putnam wrote. “Family farms in Florida and other states have found no relief from these unfair practices in our current trade laws or the current NAFTA agreement.”

    Trump campaigned on a need to renegotiate the 24-year-old trade agreement, claiming the pact is unfair to the U.S. The president has recently started to tie the deal to immigration issues.

   In May 2016, Enterprise Florida, the state's public-private business-recruitment agency, led a four-day mission to Mexico City that included 92 business leaders and officials. In announcing the trip, Enterprise Florida said NAFTA had increased bilateral trade between Mexico and the U.S. by more than 500 percent, with Florida goods that are "ideal for trade including: automotive parts, aviation parts, education services, IT services, medical devices, telecommunications equipment, security services and equipment for transportation."

   On March 21st, Rep. Carlos Curbelo issued a release of his testimony to the House Ways and Mean Committee, the federal committee that oversees trade issues, also urging Lighthizer to prioritize the needs of specialty and seasonal growers in ongoing North NAFTA renegotiations. Included in the transcript were Curbelos remarks, “Another issue I wanted to bring up is the effect trade agreements have on the farmers of my South Florida district. We have avocados, mangos, tomatoes, and hundreds of specialty crops; and because South Florida is significantly warmer than even the central part of the state, crops can be grown year-round.....So, as we renegotiate NAFTA, I am concerned with how the deal will affect our farmers across Florida, but specifically with how it will impact the agriculture community I am honored to represent in South Dade. I know the administration has been advancing a seasonal and perishable proposal that can help provide relief to our growers from Mexican dumping by making it easier to prove injury."

   Senator Marco Rubio announced that this week he will be cosponsoring the Self-Initiation Trade Enforcement Act, introduced by Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Richard Burr (R-NC). According to his statement, "The bill would establish a Task Force within the International Trade Administration to help small and medium-sized businesses and farmers compete and succeed against unfairly subsidized and dumped foreign imports in the domestic market. The Task Force would identify imports with the potential to threaten domestic industries, conduct research, and make recommendations with respect to initiating trade enforcement actions."

    Lighthizer is slated to meet Friday in Washington with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Mexican Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo. According to the Executive Office of the President, "At the time he was chosen by President Trump to serve as USTR, Lighthizer was a partner at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP (Skadden), where he practiced international trade law for over 30 years. His work there on behalf of American workers and businesses in the heavy manufacturing, agricultural, high-tech, and financial services industries opened markets to U.S. exports and defended U.S. industries from unfair trade practices. He was lead counsel for scores of trade enforcement cases and was a well-known advocate for the type of "America First" trade policies supported by President Trump."

   Our elected officials are in Washington and Tallahassee to represent our voices. To have your voice heard on how NAFTA is affecting you, your family, your business and your community contact those who can change the status quo.

   To contact the United State Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer: email correspondence@ustr.eop.gov; phone the Agriculture Affairs division at 202-395-6127. For more information go to https://ustr.gov/issue-areas/agriculture

   To contact Senator Marco Rubio's Miami office: 305-418-8553; for more information and email https://www.rubio.senate.gov.

   To contact Congressman Carlos Curbelo: 305-247-1234; his office at 404 W. Palm Drive in Florida City; or for information and email go to https://curbelo. house.gov/contact/

   To contact Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam: email via the Fresh from Florida website, https://contact.freshfromflorida.com/; phone 1-800-435-7352.

   At press time the price for a box of Mexican tomatoes was $8.25.

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