Southern farmers and lawmakers are taking another shot at getting competition protection from the Mexican fruit and vegetables that have been increasingly pouring across the border.

U.S. Trade Representative officials spent much of Thursday listening as Southern producers and political leaders laid out a case for the U.S. government to launch an investigation that could result in Section 301 tariffs on Mexican blueberries, strawberries, bell peppers, grapes, lettuce and many other specialty crops.

The hearing Thursday was primarily for Florida farmers. A second hearing – conducted virtually in a webinar like Thursday’s was – will be held next week for Georgia farmers.

“For 25 years, NAFTA allowed domestic markets to be flooded with cheap produce from Mexico that has devastated Florida seasonal crop growers’ bottom line and ability to compete – and unfortunately, the (U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement) failed to provide a remedy,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in testimony Thursday.

The USTR, pressured by lawmakers like Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, originally fought to get a provision into USMCA that would have made it easier for U.S. fruit and vegetable farmers to file anti-dumping and countervailing claims against Mexican produce exporters. The U.S. efforts were abandoned after Mexican negotiators flat-out refused.

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But USTR Robert Lighthizer subsequently promised to address allegations that Mexico is subsidizing its farmers, enabling them to ship fruit and vegetables to the U.S. at prices far below what U.S. producers can match.

Back in January, Lighthizer promised Rubio, his fellow GOP senator from Florida, Rick Scott, and Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., a letter, promising to publish a new plan in 60 days after the start of USMCA “to implement effective and timely remedies necessary to address any trade-distorting policies that may be contributing to unfair pricing in the U.S. market and harming U.S. producers of seasonal and perishable products.”

Sal Finocchiaro, owner of Florida-based S&L Bean, pleaded with USTR Thursday to act quickly because farmers who can’t compete with Mexican produce are going out of business.

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