Fried warns revamped trade deal could hurt Florida farmers

Agriculture commissioner: Deal fails to address dumping of crops

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried voiced opposition Monday to President Donald Trump’s revamped trade deal with Canada and Mexico as Vice President Mike Pence was in Jacksonville urging approval of the deal.

In a statement, Fried, a Democrat, said the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement fails to address dumping of crops that harms Florida farmers.

“In a state that depends on agriculture, we can’t afford a trade agreement that allows Mexico to continue dumping artificially low-priced seasonal crops into our country,” Fried said in the statement. “Mexico’s unfair trade practices and lower safety standards and labor costs are putting Florida’s seasonal crop growers at risk.”

The reworked trade deal with Mexico and Canada was announced at the end of September but still needs congressional approval.

Crop dumping has been an issue with Florida’s agriculture industry since the North American Free Trade Agreement was first approved 25 years ago.

Small farmers of tangelos, tangerines, strawberries, watermelon, snap beans and peppers in Florida have long argued the free-trade aspects of NAFTA have required them to fight low-priced competition from Mexico and Central and South American countries.

Graves Williams has farmed tomatoes in Quincy, Florida, for more than 30 years. He’s one of the few left in the state.

“When I started in Florida, there were 224 tomato farmers and I think there's less than 25 now,” Williams said. “We have a hard time competing with Mexico when they pay, on average, their workers $8 a day when we're paying $80 to $100 a day for the workers doing the exact same job."

To help U.S. farmers compete, the Trump administration imposed a 17.5% tariff on Mexican tomatoes in February. 

While the new tariffs may help level the playing field in the short term, members of the Trump administration have stated the U.S. will refund the money if a new deal is reached.

“This supposed ‘better deal’ is a bad deal for Florida farmers, and could put farms out of business. Smoke and mirrors from the White House won’t help our proud but struggling farmers," Fried said in the statement. 

That would once again make it harder for farmers like Williams to compete.

“They [Mexico] need to play by the rules. They just can't flood this country with produce,” Williams said. "Our government needs to make sure they just don't completely destroy American produce."

A hit to the agriculture industry would be felt statewide. Florida agriculture is a $132 billion industry, second only to tourism.

Pence was in Jacksonville on Monday for the first of a 26-city tour promoting the need for Congress to ratify the trade deal to replace NAFTA. The tour, put on by the nonprofit group America First Policies to promote Trump’s agenda, comes as the president has lifted tariffs on Canadian and Mexican aluminum and steel.

The move to lift the tariffs is intended to make it easier for Congress to support the rewritten trade deal.

Fried, who was in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, said she encouraged members of Florida’s congressional delegation not to support the revised pact until seasonal crop growers in Florida get protections.

“If the Trump administration wants to put America first, they should put Florida’s farmers first, and help them compete on a level playing field,” Fried said. “Until that happens, this new deal isn’t anything new -- just a worsening of 25 years of NAFTA’s failures.”

Fried’s statement echoed former Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican, who throughout his eight years in the state office decried NAFTA.

Fried has asked the Trump administration to support the Domestic Produce Production Act, which is supported by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and backed by all of Florida's 27 U.S. representatives. 

The act would make it easier for the federal government to investigate illegal trade practices by Mexican producers. Current law requires petitioners to demonstrate harm as measured from a nationwide and year-round perspective.