Florida Growers Say Time Is Ripe to Stem Mexican Tomato Flow

A FRESH surge of Mexican immigrants into the United States -- we're talking vegetables now -- has American farmers crying for relief.

''They're taking over our entire market,'' charges Wayne Hawkins, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange.

Last month his organization, accounting for 97 percent of Florida's tomato output, petitioned the US International Trade Commission (ITC) for quota or tariff relief.

Consumers are unlikely to reap savings from the tomato surplus -- grocery stores tend to keep prices stable, pocketing the extra profit when wholesale prices collapse, tomato industry experts say.

But the tomato tiff has the potential to put President Clinton in an awkward political position. Having backed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and pumped $20 billion into Mexico in a controversial peso bailout plan, Mr. Clinton may have to decide this month to dampen Mexico's economy-strengthening tomato exports, depending on the ITC's findings.

Clinton's reprieve may be that the complaints to date are relatively localized.

California growers are not kicking up a fuss, notes Jim Zion, program manager of agricultural exports at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Mexican vegetable exports ''tend to be in the off-season for us,'' he says.

And some US produce farmers aren't waiting for a government solution. They're moving south to take away the home field advantage from Mexican growers.

Earlier this year, one former president of the tomato exchange switched 500 acres of production to Mexico. A current board member, Monsanto-backed Gargiulo LP, also grows tomatoes south of the border.

''We're all a little guilty of that,'' says Bobby Lackey, president of J.S. McManus Produce Company Inc. in Weslaco, Texas. His 60-year-old firm brings cantaloupes, onions, broccoli, and carrots from Mexico and grows more on 4,000 acres in south Texas.

American companies have long raised onions near the Mexican city of Tampico, Mr. Lackey says. Growing costs are just as high or higher than in Texas, but the crop is ready sooner.

Last year, however, Tampico onions were late. The initial scarcity drove up US prices, attracting ''boatload after boatload'' of onions from Chilean growers, Lackey says. Then, when Tampico and Texas onions hit the market simultaneously, prices crashed. As a result, his company planted a third fewer acres in Texas this year.

On cantaloupes, Lackey notes, Caribbean exports have pushed US prices below those in Mexico, even after the peso devaluation. Thus, his company is selling its Mexican cantaloupes locally.

As for tomatoes, his company quit growing any 25 years ago, driven from the market by Florida and Mexico. Florida, in turn, has worked to remain competitive with Mexico, where the growing season overlaps its own.

Technology once gave Florida an edge, ''but we have about run that dog as far as we can,'' Mr. Hawkins says. In the last four years, modern methods like Israeli irrigation technology have helped Mexican production to skyrocket.

Exports from Mexico swamped the US market during portions of the 1992 to 1993 and 1993 to 1994 seasons. This February, Mexican tomatoes ''killed us,'' Hawkins says.

He puts some blame on the peso devaluation. Already at a cost disadvantage, Florida now pays its field workers in an hour what Mexican workers earn in a day.

But Gary Lucier, an economist at the US Department of Agriculture who tracks tomatoes, dismisses the devaluation's impact. Planting decisions in Mexico were made before the devaluation. Most of the crop was destined for the US anyway. And February is the usual peak of the Mexican harvest, he says.

Ray Gilmer, a spokesman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, wishes that his state and Mexico would find ''a way to coordinate growing seasons so that everybody could make a living. If we can control and regulate supply, we'll have stable prices.''

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