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Food fight in Florida over the Tomato Wars

Michel Marizco

Florida and Mexico growers are feuding over tomato prices. It’s the same argument heard nearly 20 years ago when NAFTA was first signed, when American farmers feared cheaper Mexican crops would flood the market here and put them out of business.

American produce importers and Mexican growers predict this dispute will bring about a trade war. But Florida growers say right now, it’s a price war. And they say Mexico is undercutting their ability to sell fresh tomatoes. Late this summer, a group of Florida tomato growers petitioned the U.S. Department of Commerce to tear up a pricing agreement with Mexican producers. If the agency is considering it, the tomato growers here can file an anti-dumping complaint against Mexico.

“We do not see a good business model in producing tomatoes and selling tomatoes for less than the cost of growing those tomatoes," says Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Exchange. Brown also says the average box of Florida tomatoes sells for about $6. The cost to grow that same box costs $9 to $10.

In the tiny town of Imuris in northern Sonora, about an hour south of the Arizona border, sits some of Florida’s competition.

A group of migrant workers kills time listening to music while waiting for a bus ride home. They came up to Imuris from central Mexico to work in Carlos Fisher’s massive greenhouse operation, Sierra Seed Company.

It’s a good example of the boom in free trade. In 2011, Mexico sent about 2.8 billion pounds of tomatoes into the U.S, more than triple what they exported the year before NAFTA began: 800 hundred million pounds. Traditionally, Mexican tomato growers targeted the west coast market, and Florida on the east coast. But in recent years, with cheaper and more efficient shipping, Mexico tomatoes are now available everywhere. And this is how businessmen in Mexico like Fisher did it.

“This is a big part of our business here, this is where we graft the tomatoes. Take a healthy root system and unite it with a very good, vigorous variety and we turn it into a super-plant,” Fisher says.

Starter tomato plants make up the bulk of their work. The company turns out 12 million grafted starter plants every six weeks. Those end up planted further south in the fields of Sinaloa, known for its hot and ideal growing climate.

It costs $5 to grow a box of tomatoes here, and it sells for about nine. So, unlike the Florida growers, Mexican tomato farmers are turning a very good profit. Fisher says that if tomato production here scaled back, he’d close down his farm.

Fisher adds, “I’ve done this all my life and I don’t think I can see myself doing anything else. So yeah, it is very scary. And I don’t want to move to Florida, that’s for sure.”

Fisher’s operation is part of the trade group the Fresh Produce Association. The association is based in Nogales, a small border town that has been in the tomato business for the past century. These days, nearly half the tomatoes imported from Mexico come through here.

Lance Jungemeyer is president of Fresh Produce, says that Florida, in pushing this dumping complaint right now, is playing politics.

“Well it’s very simple. There’s an election going on in the United States and Florida is a swing state,” says Jungemeyer.

Back in another election year, 1996, Florida also accused Mexican importers of dumping tomatoes on the U.S market. The Department of Commerce agreed and then set a minimum  price at which Mexican tomatoes could be sold here.

This time around, Mexican growers and importers say a commerce decision against them will spark a trade war and punitive tariffs against other U.S. agricultural goods.

Florida is pushing for a decision before the November election.

This story was originally produced by Fronteras: The Changing American Desk for their series NAFTA 20 YEARS LATER