Protect Georgia’s pecan and blueberry farmers. That will be one of the requests made by Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black Thursday when he testifies at a U.S. Trade Representative hearing on reining in the expansion of Mexican specialty crop exports.

Mexican farmers continue to increase the size of their pecan and blueberry production as the country sells more of the nuts and fruit to buyers in the U.S., and that’s doing real damage to U.S. producers who can’t compete on a price basis, says Black, who bristles at “the notion that there’s substandard product that’s coming in at bargain basement prices in competition with a premium (Georgia) product.”

Lanair Worsham, owner of Worsham Farms in Camilla, Ga., and a member of the Georgia Pecan Commission, says he sees the evidence and damage of Mexico’s expansion into the U.S. market. It’s in the pies and other products in grocery store shelves and restaurant menus.

“The problem is that the Mexican nuts are displacing a lot of the shelled pecans that we produce here in the Southeast,” Worsham told Agri-Pulse in a conversation while he tended his groves that will be harvested this fall. “If you eat a pecan product here in America, there’s a 75% chance that it’s Mexican.”

Georgia’s blueberry farmers are facing the same problem, says Joseph Cornelius, owner of J&B Blueberry Farms in Manor, Ga., who places most of the blame on cheap labor south of the border.

“We feel we’re at a competitive disadvantage with Mexico,” says Cornelius, who stressed that labor costs in Mexico are extremely low – sometimes roughly just $1 an hour – while he pays his employees between $15 and $20 an hour.

Cornelius, who is the chairman of the Georgia Blueberry Commission and will be testifying before USTR Thursday, says that while Mexico was exporting roughly 6 million pounds of blueberries to the U.S. in 2013, Mexico is expected to ship more than 50 million pounds north of the border.  

“When you see imports rising by millions of pounds per year, that gives our blueberry farmers great concern,” Commissioner Black said.

Cornelius and Black say they won’t be telling federal officials at the hearing exactly what they should do to counter the rising imports of cheap Mexican specialty crops, except to say that they hope the solution is powerful.

“We’re going to make sure that they understand that we support using every tool in the toolbox to make sure that our producers are not at a competitive disadvantage,” Black said. “We just hope it can be as strong as they can possibly make it to provide the protection that’s needed.”

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While Thursday is primarily the opportunity for Georgia’s farmers and lawmakers to make their voices heard, it was Florida’s turn last week. A common demand was that the Trump administration launch an investigation that could result in Section 301 tariffs on Mexican specialty crops that flood into the U.S. at below-market prices.

Officials like Black lobbied vigorously during negotiations on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement to include a provision in the deal to make it easier for U.S. farmers of seasonal specialty crops to file anti-dumping and countervailing claims against Mexican exporters, but it was ultimately left out of the pact.

And farmers say that’s still hurting them.

“I’m a capitalist at heart, but fair competition is different from free competition,” Cornelius said. “Some days you feel very strangled.”

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