“As Americans, we are in this fight together to leave our world a better place. And this means leaving our children with a safe and abundant food supply for the future.” –Russ Goodman
From the cotton sheets on your bed to the food you eat and the clothes you wear, the agriculture industry impacts everyone. A big job considering that the world’s population is anticipated to reach 9.8 billion by 2050—an increase of 2.2 billion people. The jump in population will create the need for farmers worldwide to increase food production by 70 percent.
As the demand for more food continues to rise, the number of farms operating in the U.S. are on the decline. In 1935, there were approximately 6.8 million farms scattered across the country; however, that number has fallen to about two million, with 96 percent designated as family farms.
The landscape of the family farm is changing. For many farmers, the financial picture resembles a doomsday scenario as farm debt reaches $416 billion. Adding to the bleak situation, last year, the number of Chapter 12 family farm bankruptcies increased by more than 20 percent.
In 2019, Georgia was ranked No. 3 (behind California and Wisconsin) with 41 family farms filing Chapter 12 bankruptcies, up from 26 from the previous year, according to the Georgia Farm Bureau.
With the closing of family farms, comes a sharp decline in direct farm jobs. The agriculture and food sector employs approximately 22 million full- and part-time workers (11 percent of U.S. employment). On a much smaller scale, direct on-farm jobs account for only 2.6 million workers, representing less than 2 percent of America’s workforce.
“For too long people have had the wool pulled over their eyes on where their food comes from. It starts with education. We need consumers to be aware of where their food comes from, and then pressure retailers to carry American grown products in the grocery stores.” –Lawton “Bud” Chiles III
Saving the Family Farm
A seventh-generation farmer, Russ Goodman, from Clinch County, Georgia, is passionate about saving family farms and understands the local and global economic importance they represent.
Joining forces with farmers and ranchers from across the country, Goodman is an active participant in the American Grown initiative. A grassroots effort that started last year, American Grown Inc. has a mission to educate and empower people to protect America’s food supply chain.
“As Americans, we are in this fight together to leave our world a better place,” says Goodman, who, along with his in-laws, Johnny and Joy Crumbley, own Cogdell Berry Farm. “And this means leaving our children with a safe and abundant food supply for the future.”
With an active social media presence and a website showcasing heartfelt testimonials from farmers and ranchers in the trenches, the “Demand American Grown” message is striking a positive response from across the country.
Lawton “Bud” Chiles III, executive director of American Grown Inc., says the movement started with a handful of Florida and Georgia farmers.
“It has exploded and now includes broad-based support,” says Chiles, who owns Jubilee Orchards near Tallahassee, Florida. “We are reaching farmers and consumers from across the country, and gaining support from parents concerned about the health and safety of the food they serve their families.”
For several years, the “Buy American Made” slogan has drawn attention to the importance of purchasing products manufactured in the U.S.; however, the message falls short when it comes to food production.
“For too long people have had the wool pulled over their eyes on where their food comes from,” says Chiles, who raises organic blueberries on his 50-acre farm. “It starts with education. We need consumers to be aware of where their food comes from, and then pressure retailers to carry American grown products in the grocery stores.”
How can the average consumer help? Chiles says it’s as simple as having a conversation with your local supermarket or retail manager. “Request American grown products, especially when items are in season and available locally. Also, if they are stocking food from third world countries, find out why.”
Cautioning that food labels can be misleading, Chiles says, “Five years ago, we had a clear country of origin labeling system, and now that has been muddled. For example, beef from Brazil or Mexico can come into the U.S. and get repackaged to look like it’s an American product. The labels should clearly state if the product is foreign or domestic—right now, it’s hard to tell.”
Through American Grown, growers and producers can gain certification and authorization to use “American Grown” and “Demand American Grown” labels on packaging, boxes, or affix directly on vegetables.
“Buying American products supports American jobs,” says U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler). “These are jobs that support the livelihoods of our neighbors and welfare of our communities. Georgia’s top economic driver is agriculture, and purchasing Georgia products not only supports the farmers but ripples throughout the supply chain.”
“Not only do American producers face foreign competitors who can produce their products much cheaper and often year-round, the pandemic dramatically reduced the market for American goods.” — U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter
Level Playing Field
Advocating for the financial stability of family farms, American Grown is also using its platform to inform consumers and governmental leaders about the importance of limiting food imports to the U.S.
Goodman says for South Georgia farmers to compete with imports, mostly from Mexico, a “level playing field” needs to be established.
Agreeing that competition is inevitable within any industry, American farmers aren’t as concerned with their domestic counterparts, it’s the imports that are putting fruit and vegetable farmers at a higher financial risk.
“I am not worried about farmers in Florida or North Carolina,” says Goodman. “They are American farmers and are operating under the same cost structure and government regulations that I am.”
Carter says the import issue is exacerbated by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. “Not only do American producers face foreign competitors who can produce their products much cheaper and often year-round, the pandemic dramatically reduced the market for American goods.”
Dealing with increased imports from Mexico, Goodman and other South Georgia farmers anticipated some relief with the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which replaced the decades-old NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) on July 1, 2020.
Hailed as a “better deal for American farmers, consumers, and workers,” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the USMCA is expected to create more market access for farmers across the nation to export products to Mexico and Canada.
While most U.S. farmers and ranchers consider the USMCA an economic victory, many Southeast produce farmers aren’t celebrating.
“We went from NAFTA to USMCA and gained no benefits for fruit and vegetable growers,” says Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (GFVGA), which serves more than 500 members. “Our trade issues with Mexico are still the same; nothing got better with USMCA.”
Since the inception of NAFTA in 1994, Southeast U.S. farmers have struggled financially as low-priced fruits and vegetables from Mexico continue to flood American markets, especially during domestic in-season months.
“NAFTA and now USMCA present our biggest problem,” says Goodman. “It’s hypocritical of the U.S. government to expect farmers to grow food with the environmental and labor regulations that are in place, while also allowing Mexico to import food that does not adhere to the same standards.”
“Last year, Georgia’s farmers were getting a fairly good price for squash, at around $12 to $16 a box. This was a reasonable price to make a profit. However, in the middle of our season, squash from Mexico came in, and the price drops to $6 a box, then $4 a box.” –Charles Hall
In Georgia, fruits and vegetables are grown on approximately 200,000 acres and represents more than $1.4 billion farm gate value, while produce growers struggle to control their destiny.
According to a report prepared last year by the University of Georgia (UGA) College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the impact of USMCA on Georgia’s fruit and vegetable crops could bring about mild to catastrophic damage.
Projecting annual economic losses of more than $1 billion for Georgia’s blueberry and vegetable farmers over the next five to ten years, the report also estimates the elimination of more than 8,000 agricultural-related jobs.
While Georgia’s robust $73.3 billion agricultural industry is expected to weather the storm generated from increased imports from Mexico, fruit and vegetable growers in South Georgia will be significantly impacted.
In heavy agricultural-based Clinch and Echols counties, the effects of the USMCA are estimated to bring upwards of 40 percent loss in revenue.
Not just a Georgia issue, fruit and vegetable growers, primarily in Southeast states, are being squeezed out of business due to increased imports. Between 2010 and 2018, imports of tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, and bell peppers have risen from 1.75 to 2.32 million metric tons—a 33 percent jump, according to a report by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
The UGA report states that under the USMCA, increased imports from Mexico will continue to negatively impact blueberries, bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, squash, and tomato crops. As Mexico expands year-round production, Georgia’s fruit and vegetable growers will face more economic difficulties.
With no end in sight, high volumes of unfairly priced Mexican produce continue to over-saturate the U.S. market and drive prices below the point that it may remain economically unfeasible for produce farmers to continue production.
According to Jeffrey H. Dorfman, co-author of the USMCA report and UGA professor of agricultural and applied economics, Mexico has gained a foothold in the U.S. market by extending its growing season through the use of government-subsidized protective greenhouses and high tunnels and lower labor costs.
“The Mexican government provides subsidies to their farmer to install greenhouses and high tunnels,” says Dorfman. “This allows them to lengthen their season and overlap with Georgia’s fruit and vegetable season.”
Since 2009, Mexico’s acreage of blueberries and vegetables grown in greenhouse and high tunnels has expanded from 25,000 acres to more than 100,000 acres.
“Last year, Georgia’s farmers were getting a fairly good price for squash, at around $12 to $16 a box,” says Hall. “This was a reasonable price to make a profit. However, in the middle of our season, squash from Mexico came in, and the price drops to $6 a box, then $4 a box.”
Blueberries are forecast to be one of the state’s hardest-hit crops under the USMCA. Grown in Georgia on approximately 30,000 acres, blueberries (highbush and rabbiteye) represent more than $721 million in economic impact and create about 4,000 jobs.
A vital commodity within Georgia’s agricultural industry, Goodman is concerned that the state is in jeopardy of losing its blueberry market to Mexico.
“In 2010, there were 1.8 million pounds of blueberries imported to the U.S. from Mexico,” says Goodman, who farms approximately 500 acres of blueberries in South Georgia. “Last year, that jumped to 63 million pounds.”
Domestic versus foreign labor disparity and availability continues to present significant challenges for South Georgia farmers.
“You ask any grower, and they will tell you that labor cost is a big issue,” says Hall. “It’s not only the wages but having workers available.”
The majority of farms hire seasonal workers through the U.S. Department of Labor H-2A program, which sets a minimum wage standard for each state. On average, H-2A guidelines require U.S. farmers to pay seasonal farmworkers $14 an hour, a sharp contrast to the $10 to $12 per day salary they receive in Mexico.
“We are working to educate the consumers, and I believe they will respond when properly presented. I think there needs to be an awakening of the American conscious to know where food comes from and how their money supports our farmers.” –Gary Black
In response to the UGA report, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue wrote in an op-ed piece, “It’s important to note we didn’t get all the improvements we wanted for seasonal fruits and vegetables. While we were hopeful we could make progress in the renewed NAFTA, USMCA isn’t a step backward.”
He says the UGA report assumed the U.S. lost ground, “but the facts are it wasn’t ground we had to begin with. Since the inception of NAFTA more than 20 years ago, agricultural trade between our three countries has boomed. U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico increased by 300 percent, and our imports increased by almost 500 percent, benefiting producers and consumers on both sides of our borders.”
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black says issues surrounding security, food safety, and environmental and labor standards must be reviewed. “We have loads of produce coming across the border every day, and the U.S. can only check a minimal number of trucks. It is a regular occurrence to find them with millions of dollars in illegal substance.”
According to Black, the next step involves enforcing the regulations outlined in the USMCA. “We spoke out firmly against USMCA for our seasonal producers. Now, we have to make sure restrictions in the agreement are enforced to the fullest extent.”
Black says recent hearings with federal agencies, including the USDA, represent a positive direction in addressing Georgia’s fruit and vegetable growers’ concerns with the USMCA.
Continuing to promote the Georgia Grown brand as a top priority, Black says, “We are working to educate the consumers, and I believe they will respond when properly presented. I think there needs to be an awakening of the American conscious to know where food comes from and how their money supports our farmers.”