Florida Farmers Raise Cane Over Mexican Tomatoes

YOU might call it a free-trade food fight. And Florida vegetable farmers are getting the worst of it.

They claim Mexican producers are shipping fresh vegetables to the United States in huge quantities - in excess of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) quotas and allegedly below the cost of production.

As a result, Florida farmers say they can't afford to harvest some crops.

''Mexican producers are putting all of us out of business,'' says Paul Dimare, a farmer in Homestead, whose family has grown vegetables in Florida for 68 years. ''We are letting everything come in here and they are putting us out of business.''

Florida farmers, who in the winter grow most of the cucumbers, zucchinis, bell peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes produced in the US, say they are leaving this season's crops to rot in the fields because they can't match the rock-bottom prices of South-of-the-Border produce.

Florida tomato growers are particularly hard hit. It costs them $8 to produce a 25-pound box of tomatoes, but thanks to the surplus of produce once favored by the Aztecs, the market price for the red fruit is about $4 to $5 a box.

Shipment of Mexican tomatoes to the US has gone up 65 percent this winter compared with last winter, according to the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. It costs Mexican farmers about $6 to produce a box of tomatoes, the association says, and they are shipping the produce to the US at a loss in an bid to drive Florida farmers out of business.

''That is called dumping,'' Mr. Dimare says. ''They are trying to put us out of business, and the government is dancing around the issue.''

Florida growers are calling for trade sanctions. The US government has increased the tariff on Mexican tomatoes and chili peppers that exceed the NAFTA shipping quota this month. But Florida farmers say it is too little too late.

Under pressure from the state, the federal government has increased the number of agricultural inspectors who check imports by 50. The US Department of Agriculture also agreed to deploy an additional 90 inspectors in Florida by the end of the year.

Florida growers say the flood of cheap produce wasn't being inspected properly for pests and disease. Mexican growers and some US shippers say the beefed up inspections are a ploy to slow shipments and raise costs.

The competition between Floridian and Mexican farmers to stock US grocery store shelves has been going on for decades. But it turned nasty this year in the wake of the Mexican peso collapse. Farmers there had a strong incentive to ship produce north to earn dollars.

Florida farmers saw their share of the winter tomato market dwindle from 73 percent in 1993 to about 40 percent.

The presidential campaign in Florida may hinge on farm issues, but farmers say the Clinton administration has not been helping them thus far. Farmers have put ads in newspapers across the state, lashing out at the president and reminding him to keep promises he made to protect their farms in order to gain their support for NAFTA.

A spokesman for US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor says US officials have been meeting with Mexican officials to resolve the issue.

''We are not playing on a level playing field,'' says Tom Kirby, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau. ''What we want is for the Clinton administration to place a moratorium on Mexican fruit and vegetable imports until these issues can be resolved.''

''We are looking at mortality rate of 30 to 40 percent for farms because the banks wouldn't give out any more loans,'' he adds. ''Bureaucrats meeting each other to talk about more meetings wouldn't help us. We don't have the time to wait in Florida.''

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