US Farmers Wary Of a Trade Pact With Mexicans


IN Florida, citrus growers say their industry will be wiped out. In Washington state, apple growers see an opportunity both golden and delicious. California farmer Jim Roberts, boot-deep in baby carrots here, is both hopeful and anxious. Down on the American farm, the proposed free trade agreement with Mexico is producing a salad of mixed feelings.

The possibility of closer integration of the US economy with Mexico's has stirred concern in the United States about everything from lost jobs in Detroit to trans-border pollution. But in few segments of American life are the emotions and questions running deeper than in agriculture.

``If Mexico is given duty-free entry into the US, Florida orange juice will be but a memory,'' says Dan Gunter, head of the Florida Department of Citrus.

``I think we can compete,'' says Mr. Roberts, vegetable grower and part owner of the Underwood Ranch here.

Last week, Congress gave the President the go-ahead to negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico. But the lobbying on the pact has just begun. Special interests of all kinds - including farmers - are now trying to shape the contours of any union between the US, Mexico, and Canada.

Farmers worry about everything from cheap imports, to patent rights on new hybrids, to trucking regulations - underscoring the complexity of linking disparate economies and the uneven consequences it could bring.

``We won't support the pact if our conditions aren't met,'' says Cher Watte, trade specialist at the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Many trade barriers between the US and Mexico have already been dropped over the past decade. Mexican farm exports to the US rose from $1 billion in 1980 to $2.3 billion in 1989. While the flow of US foodstuffs to Mexico grew more slowly, the US enjoyed a $3.3 billion net surplus in trade. Mexico is now the US's third largest farm export market.

The General Accounting Office, in a recent study, said the increased agricultural trade has ``benefited both countries.'' The question now is whether removal of remaining barriers would be a help or hindrance.

Loosening of licensing and other restrictions, analysts say, are likely to benefit dairy, apple, small pear, and poultry producers. More soybeans and grains are also expected to flow south.

``Mexico has the potential to be our top foreign market,'' says Amy Hedeen of the Washington Apple Commission.

Mexico has been sending more than 1 million calves to the US each year to fatten in feedlots. That practice is likely to increase, pleasing feedlot owners but worrying US livestock producers.

Presumably, as Mexican income grows, so will the demand for many US food products.

``Overall, I think it is a win-win situation for American agriculture,'' says Mechel Paggi, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Among the most vociferous opponents is Florida's $6.2 billion agriculture industry, which produces more than half the nation's supply of winter produce. With a growing season the same as Mexico's, Florida growers fear losing out to an industry that has lower wage scales and minimum benefit costs.

California tomato growers are concerned as well. The Golden State produces 90 percent of the country's processed tomatoes. Although the $4.4-billion industry here would not be wiped out, farmers say they can't go hoe-to-hoe with Mexican farmers who pay laborers as little as $4 a day.

``Mexico is able to land tomatoes in the US at prices we now can't compete with,'' says David Zollinger, president of the California Tomato Growers Association.

The Mexicans have already cut heavily into California's broccoli market. Other products likely to be impacted are cucumbers, table grapes, and peppers.

Another complaint: Mexican growers will be able to use pesticides and other chemicals not allowed in this country, giving them an advantage.

Still, farmer Roberts believes an economically stable Mexico is important. Standing in jeans, sweat shirt, and ``Pesto-Seed'' cap, he looks out at his workers who make as much as $8 an hour. ``We may pay more for labor, but we have mechanization and know our market better.''

Environmentalists charge that a free-trade agreement would result in pesticide-tainted Mexican imports. The Bush administration, however, maintains that US environmental and food safety rules will remain unchanged.

US farmers are pushing to see that some protections remain. Florida is asking that all winter fruit and vegetables be exempted from the agreement.

California tomato growers want the pact phased in slowly, over 20 years. They also want provisions that would allow duties to be reimposed if Mexican imports severely hurt US producers.

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