Grower Associations Gearing Up for Farm Bill

Jim Rogers Farm Bill

By Clint Thompson

What the future of agriculture looks like could be shaped by how discussions materialize this year in preparation for the 2023 farm bill. The farm bill’s passage will have lasting ramifications for Southeast specialty crop producers who hope to remain sustainable for the foreseeable future.

Farm Bill

For one specialty crop organization, the bill’s inclusion or exclusion of language pertaining to imports from other countries will impact the sustainability of the region’s farmers heading into the next decade.

“The most critical issue to be addressed in the next farm bill for Georgia growers is competitiveness,” says Chris Butts, executive vice president of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association (GFVGA). “Cheap imports continue to flood our markets. It’s time to decide if we want policy that supports American growers or if we want to rely on foreign countries to produce our food. It’s really as simple as that.”

Butts and leadership from Florida have contended that cheap imports have tilted the playing field in foreign countries’ favor, dating back a couple of decades.

Statistics tell the story. Florida strawberry production totaled approximately 220 million pounds in 2000 compared to Mexico’s 70 million. Almost 20 years later, Florida production reached about 200 million pounds compared to Mexico’s 405 million. Mexican imports of blueberries were non-existent before 2009. But they totaled a little more than 90 million pounds in 2019, compared to Florida’s approximate 24 million.

The disparity in production is not isolated to fruits. Florida produced 1.6 billion pounds of tomatoes in 2000, 20% higher than Mexico. But now imports from Mexico are five times higher than Florida production.

Mexican produce can be shipped into the United States at a much lower market price due in large part to its farmers only having to pay a small fraction of the labor costs growers in Florida and Georgia are required to pay, especially following the increase in the adverse effect wage rate (AEWR) for both states. The rate is established as part of the H-2A program. The AEWR for Georgia’s specialty crop producers increased from $11.99 per hour in 2022 to $13.68 per hour in 2023. Florida’s new AEWR climbed to $14.33, up from $12.41 just a year ago.

Government subsidies are also a culprit in the recent rise of Mexican imports. Zhengfei Guan, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences associate professor, says subsidies provide an extra layer of support that U.S. producers are not privy to. The Mexican government provides money to growers to reduce their cost of production, for example, to pay for the costs of greenhouses.

“For one project, the grower could get up to $200,000. That’s the subsidy amount they could get. That’s a huge amount of money,” Guan says.

Mexican farmers can afford to sell their produce at reduced prices or literally dump it in the United States if they are supported financially.

“The future for Southeast producers is grim if we don’t do something to level the playing field for our growers. That makes this farm bill especially critical given the recent AEWR increases and the continued high input costs,” Butts says. “Our growers face so much continued uncertainty on issues beyond their control. Growers are a nimble bunch who can respond to changes in weather, pests and disease. They have the tools and experience to respond to these challenges. Huge AEWR increases and an uneven playing field are far broader, sweeping challenges that threaten the very future of our members.”

The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA) is coordinating with the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance to outline priorities for the farm bill and educate congressional leaders on the needs of domestic producers.

“We know that many of the farm bill programs are oversubscribed and lack appropriate funding. That’s why the alliance has already put in a lot of work to determine what improvements can be made to support U.S. specialty crop growers,” says Mike Joyner, FFVA president. “We released the alliance’s Principles for Consideration of the 2023 Farm Bill. Our principles are guiding the development of those priorities and they include a focus on health, competitiveness and sustainability, trade and foreign competition, research and innovation, and natural resources and climate.”

The farm bill contains legislation that impacts agricultural practices across the United States and mandates how food is produced. The bill is debated and passed by Congress before being signed into law by the president. Since it is legislation that is discussed and passed every five years, its importance speaks volumes to industry leaders. The FFVA stresses its significance on the U.S. food system.

“Many of the measures that the farm bill discusses aim to maintain and increase specialty crop grower competitiveness. That may be through increased access to research and inputs, funding for automation, funding for specialty crop marketing programs or improved crop insurance access. The bill ensures important programs like these continue, and it’s something FFVA will continue to get behind,” Joyner says. “Growers are facing rising input costs like never before. This surge is tied to global and geopolitical issues, and they are not easily addressed. But while the specialty crop industry has its challenges, it also has strong leaders who, through vision, determination and commitment, will find solutions.”