U.S. farmers, government officials and academics told the International Trade Commission on Thursday that unfair Mexican trade had caused steep losses in domestic vegetable markets, an accusation countered by representatives of Mexican producers. 

U.S. consumers are eating a lot more cucumbers and squash, but U.S. farmers that produce the veggies are selling less as imports from Mexico continue to rise, putting U.S. operations out of business, the ITC was told during an online hearing.

But blaming Mexico for farmers’ woes is unfair, argued witnesses such as Gerardo Lameda, the top economics official at Mexico’s embassy in Washington. Mexican production and exports of cucumbers and squash have risen sharply in recent years, but only because U.S. demand has risen. Mexican exports, he said, complement U.S. production in states like Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Michigan by shipping to the U.S. in winter months so that U.S. consumers can buy the vegetables all year.

Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, argued that U.S. farmers have problems far greater than imports from Mexico. Storms, flood, drought, the loss of land to commercial and residential construction and labor shortages are the real problems for U.S. farmers, he told the ITC.

Jungmeyer said,U.S. farmers “have reflexively blamed Mexican imports for all their woes, saying it’s unfair, unfair, unfair. In reality, many of the problems faced by these growers … have nothing to do with Mexican imports, but everything to do with the (U.S.) growers’ inability to supply (the U.S.) market.”

But witnesses such as Gene McAvoy, associate director for stakeholder relations at the University of Florida, and Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association  rejected those arguments and put the blame squarely on subsidized Mexican farms who sell their cucumbers and squash in the U.S. for less money than it costs U.S. farms to produce the vegetables.

“Our growers face a crisis not of their own making,” said Hall, who noted that it costs Georgia producers an average of $7.86 to grow and package a box of cucumbers while Mexican cucumbers sell for as low as $5.21 per box.

“Between 2015 and 2019 imports of Mexican Cucumbers surged 14%,” he said. “Georgia production dropped by 37%.”

McAvoy said that only about a third of the vegetable farmers are left in southwest Florida after two decades of competition with Mexican imports.

Interested in more news on farm programs, trade and rural issues? Sign up for a four-week free trial to Agri-Pulse. You’ll receive our content - absolutely free - during the trial period.

“To put it simply, our growers can’t compete with a country that uses unfair, trade-distorting practices like Mexico has done for the past 20 years,” he said.

The ITC agreed to investigate the impact of imported cucumbers and squash after a direct request from then-U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and it will take about a year to complete.

Meanwhile, cucumber and squash farmers have the support of some lawmakers in the House and Senate.

Reps. Austin Scott, R-Ga., Darren Soto, D-Fla., Dan Kildee, D-Mich., Fred Upton, R-Mich., and 26 other lawmakers write a letter this week to ITC leaders, supporting the investigation.

“Seasonal cucumber and squash imports from Mexico continue to dramatically impact U.S. markets and threaten the future of domestic farm production of perishable produce,” they wrote. “Import data from land grant universities and state departments of agriculture affirm that seasonal imported squash and cucumbers negatively impact our vegetable growers, their markets, and communities.”