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IMPORTED TOMATOES FROM MEXICO HAVE SOME U.S. GROWERS SEEING RED

tomatoes

IMPORTED TOMATOES FROM MEXICO HAVE SOME U.S. GROWERS SEEING RED

Tomato Trade Tensions Simmering Again

Nothing says “summer” like a fresh tomato. And thanks to trade, tomatoes aren’t just a seasonal treat for Americans. A trade policy battle, however, over our favorite little red vegetable that had simmered on the back burner for decades recently heated up again and might have threatened our ability to enjoy tomatoes year round.

While NAFTA – now replaced by the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) – eliminated trade barriers for most agricultural exports, trade in tomatoes between the United States and Mexico remains complicated to this day. U.S. growers have made a fresh push for the Administration to protect domestic tomato production against imports of increasingly competitive Mexican produce.

Seasons of Discontent

The United States is the second largest producer of tomatoes in the world, but with each American eating an average of more than 20 pounds of tomatoes a year, we import them to satisfy high demand. Mexico is the largest exporter in the world and the United States’ top international supplier. Of the $2.4 billion worth of tomatoes the United States imported in 2019, $2.1 billion came from Mexico, representing 87.5 percent of total U.S. tomato imports.

MX imports of tomoatoes

Although Mexico exports a wide variety of seasonal produce to the United States ranging from bell peppers to blueberries, it’s trade in tomatoes that has been a consistent source of tension. That’s because tomatoes are one of the highest valued fresh vegetable crops in the United States and Mexican tomatoes directly compete with tomatoes grown in the state of Florida during the winter and early summer.

Over the last two decades, U.S. tomato production has declined substantially while Mexican imports increased. And while Florida is still the top tomato state in the nation, production there has declined steadily since 2000. Florida once had 300 tomato growers, but now has fewer than 50. Labor is one major reason for this change. Fresh tomatoes are largely picked by hand – and farm workers are increasingly hard to find and expensive.

MX v FLA

Animated Suspension

Throughout this downward trend, the American tomato industry has complained that Mexican growers have an unfair advantage. The Mexican tomato industry has significantly ramped up production not just thanks to lower labor costs, but also extensive support from the Mexican government in the form of capital for producers, investment in infrastructure and technology to modernize the industry, and other subsidies throughout the supply chain.

The American tomato industry first filed a case with U.S. trade agencies back in the 1970s seeking relief from competition from low priced tomatoes from Mexico, which they alleged were being sold at less than fair market value in the United States (or “dumped”). The antidumping case was ultimately dropped, but after NAFTA was enacted, Florida tomato growers renewed their complaint, claiming Mexican tomatoes were a threat to the domestic industry. The U.S. International Trade Commission found in favor of U.S. growers. Facing potential antidumping tariffs on their exports, Mexican growers in 1996 entered into what’s known as a “suspension agreement.”

By law, the Commerce Department can suspend an antidumping duty or countervailing duty investigation when the parties in the case reach an agreement that meets certain statutory and policy criteria. Under the tomato suspension agreement, the Mexican industry agreed to reduce production and meet a minimum price floor for fresh tomatoes. Suspension agreements require ongoing monitoring to ensure compliance through a process that is completely separate from NAFTA or USMCA. The tomato suspension agreement of 1996 has been updated and expanded three times: in 2002, 2008 and 2013.

To-may-to, To-mah-to, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

The suspension agreements were intended to prevent further dumping and injury to the U.S. tomato industry. However, growers in the U.S. southeast have said the agreements were not successful in achieving that goal because provisions were either unenforceable or subject to loopholes. With those concerns in mind, the Florida Tomato Exchange submitted a request to the Commerce Department in November 2018 to terminate the 2013 suspension agreement.

In February 2019, the Commerce Department notified the Mexican government of its intention to withdraw. On May 7, the U.S. government officially terminated the 2013 suspension agreement and enacted a 17.56 percent duty on imported Mexican tomatoes. Some expressed concern the move would stir up a trade war between the two countries, leading to higher prices for consumers and a reduction in the winter tomato supply as Mexican growers shifted their acreage to other crops, though the Administration stated its willingness to resolve the dispute even as its antidumping investigation continued.

Then, in September 2019, the Administration announced a new suspension agreement had been reached with Mexican exporters, effectively putting an end to the investigation. The new agreement is meant to protect U.S. producers from being undercut on prices. It includes audits and border inspections to prevent imports of low-quality tomatoes that could have a similar effect of depressing prices.

USMCA’s Rotten Tomatoes

At the same time that the antidumping investigation was playing out, USMCA was picking up steam on Capitol Hill. After receiving bipartisan support in the House and Senate, USMCA was signed into law on January 29, 2020 and entered into force on July 1, 2020, officially replacing NAFTA. It is easy to see why most American farmers and ranchers rallied support for USMCA. Canada is the top market for U.S. farm products, with Mexico following in the number two spot. U.S. agricultural exports to both countries totaled $44 billion in 2018.

However, one vocal segment of the U.S. agriculture industry was not entirely happy with the USMCA provisions. Fresh produce growers in the U.S. southeast expressed concern that Mexico continued to undercut their prices, dumping cheap fruits and vegetables in the market during their peak harvest time. Farmers from states including Georgia and Florida argued they had watched NAFTA erode their share of the U.S. market and that USMCA was an opportunity to provide a remedy.

American growers from the southern region pushed for new protections in USMCA through antidumping and countervailing duty provisions as a way to even the playing field from what they see as unfair subsidies, labor and environmental practices by Mexico that make U.S.-grown specialty crops like tomatoes and blueberries less competitive.

To create some leverage in the USMCA negotiations, lawmakers from the southeast region introduced legislation, the Defending Domestic Produce Production Act, designed to make it easier for seasonal growers to petition the Commerce Department and the U.S. International Trade Commission to investigate Mexico’s subsidies and dumping of cheap produce. This change would measure injury to industries with short harvest windows (like tomatoes and strawberries) on a seasonal basis rather than having to prove nation-wide, year-round harm.

Congressional letter on tomatoes

Hybrid Views in the Produce Industry

But the U.S. produce industry is not unified in its criticism of seasonal produce imports from Mexico or in its support for a trade remedy to the problem. Growers and distributors in western states like California and Arizona argued against including changes in USMCA because many of those companies work in both the United States and Mexico to ensure fresh produce is available year round. They also worried that Mexico would use the same approach against American produce like apples and grapes. Industry groups in Nogales, Arizona opposed the changes as well, citing a negative ripple effect on their economy if the produce from Mexico that passes through gateway communities were significantly reduced.

Twenty-three Senators and U.S. House members from Arizona, Texas, and California sent a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative opposing attempts to insert seasonal antidumping language into USMCA. The lawmakers wrote: “using USMCA as a vehicle for pursuing seasonal agriculture trade remedies risks pitting different regions of the country against each other.”

While the Trump Administration initially seemed sympathetic to the southeastern growers’ complaints, the provisions ultimately did not make it into USMCA given the concerns of other producers in the sector who would be potential targets for retaliation from Mexico. But the Administration committed to continue an investigation into the issue.

Is the Dispute Ripening Again?

In August 2020, USTR, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Department of Commerce held two hearings to collect feedback about whether trade policies are harming American seasonal produce growers. The hearings are part of an effort promised by the Administration to respond to any trade distorting practices within two months of USCMA going into effect.

At the listening sessions, lawmakers and growers from southeastern states spoke out about how their sector is impacted by subsidies and other practices by Mexico that they believe are hurting American agriculture. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked the Administration to use Section 301 authority to investigate and potentially take retaliatory action against Mexico.

Following the hearings, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said he is working with USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to come up with a plan to address the growers’ concerns by September 1. What action the Administration may take to protect American producers – notably located in states like Florida that may be key for the president’s re-election bid – remains to be seen.

What we do know is that southeastern produce growers seem cautiously optimistic that the new suspension agreement for tomatoes will be more effective than past iterations. And while most Americans are likely unaware of the ongoing tomato trade tension between the U.S. and Mexico, shoppers undoubtedly benefit from year-round access to affordable fresh produce.

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Sarah Hubbart provides communications strategy, content creation, and social media management for TradeVistas. A native of rural Northern California, Sarah has melded communications and policy throughout her career in Washington, D.C., serving in government affairs, issues management, and coalition building roles in the agricultural sector. She is an alum of California State University, Chico and George Washington University.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.

infrastructure

RURAL INFRASTRUCTURE CONNECT AMERICA’S FARMERS WITH THE WORLD

Infrastructure helps U.S. farmers compete in global markets while improving their productivity here at home.

On the Surface

America’s surface transportation system includes railways, roads, bridges and waterways. Each play an important role in moving farm products from where they are grown to customers around the world. And broadband Internet – another form of infrastructure – brings market information to farmers faster than ever before.

But: our deteriorating bridges and roadways threaten American agriculture’s dominance by slowing down shipments and making exports more expensive. Meanwhile, 60 percent of farmers say they don’t have enough Internet connectivity to run their businesses.

In his 2019 State of the Union address, President Trump included a call to action to rebuild America’s infrastructure. In July 2020, the U.S. House passed its first infrastructure package since 2016. Will this renewed interest in infrastructure from the White House and on Capitol Hill give U.S. agriculture a reason for optimism during an otherwise challenging year?

The Transportation Cost Edge

In 2018, $139.6 billion in American farm products were exported around the world, supporting more than 1 million jobs around the country, including 691,000 non-farm jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We sell more food, fiber and renewable fuel to world markets than we import, creating a positive agricultural trade balance.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic brought new uncertainties for America’s farmers. Total U.S. agriculture exports in FY 2020 are projected to fall to $136.5 billion due to a rollback in commodities like soybeans, cotton, corn, and wheat. And for soybeans, the trade situation is especially complicated. Aside from the impacts of the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, U.S. soybean exports are falling in part due to increasingly competitive Brazilian exports. Lower transportation costs are part of what gives Brazil’s exporters an edge.

US Brazil Soybean X to China

The United States’ historically low cost of transport from farms to export markets has been one of the keys to its competitiveness and historical domination of the global soybean market. But even small differences in transportation costs can give South American soybeans an advantage over U.S. soybeans. Competitors like Brazil are starting to catch up with investment in roads and ports to make their agricultural products more inexpensive – and therefore more attractive to big buyers like China.

Last year, Brazil surpassed the United States as the largest soybean producer in the world while American exports faced duel headwinds of a strong U.S. dollar and Chinese tariffs. Meanwhile, U.S. market share of global soybean trade has actually been declining since the 1990s, in part due to changes in ocean freight rates and the development of Brazil’s transportation infrastructure since 2007.

Getting Food to Market: Roads, Bridges, Dams and Ports

Wherever it’s destined to go in the world, all food starts at the farm. Today in the United States, that often means moving millions of tons of commodities long distances over bumpy roads and structurally deficient bridges, and through crowded ports.

Investment in rural roads, bridges, locks and dams has not kept up with America’s modern agriculture industry. Trade in grains and oilseeds has grown on average between two the three percent per year since 1964. Yet, the United States spends less on transportation infrastructure than during any point since World War II. And infrastructure legislation of the past has often focused on population centers – urban and suburban areas – rather than rural communities whose economies depend on agriculture, and exports.

The situation appears dire once you dig into the numbers. Transportation research organization TRIP’s 2019 Rural Roads Report found that 79 percent of the nation’s bridges that are rated as poor or “structurally deficient” are rural. Altogether, the nation’s rural roads, highways and bridges face a $211 billion backlog in repairs.

Inland waterways move commodities like soybeans to domestic and international markets. But most locks and dams have exceeded their intended 50-year lifespan. The result? In 2017, 49 percent of barges experienced delays – at a cost of nearly $45 million.

In some places, short line railroads are the best or only option for moving agricultural products. Some rural rail lines have closed due to consolidation in the industry. That puts more reliance on trucking to move freight. But more truckers on the road, coupled with aging roadways, means more freight bottlenecks on highways across the United States. In 2016, truck drivers sat in stalled traffic for about 728 million hours at an estimated cost of $50 million.

Rural Roads

Rural Broadband is the Next Infrastructure Frontier

Modern infrastructure includes digital connectivity. From following commodity markets to communicating with potential buyers, access to broadband internet is essential for farmers in 2020. Farmers leverage the Internet to improve efficiency, to connect with customers in real-time, and to implement precision technologies that optimize the use of inputs.

Yet, USDA estimates that 80 percent of the 24 million Americans who don’t have access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet are in rural areas. While USDA has ramped up its investment in telecommunications infrastructure, more needs to be done to ensure U.S. farmers remain on the cutting edge of the global economy.

The 2018 report from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to the White House identified “e-connectivity” as a central pillar for improving the quality of life in rural America. The task force likened the expansion of broadband and precision agriculture to the construction of the U.S. Interstate Highway System of the 1950s, which catapulted productivity and transformed the nation’s economy. Investment in this area will help U.S. farmers compete with other nations like Australia, China and the Netherlands that are already seen as leaders in agriculture technology.

Rural Internet

2020 Priorities Aligned

Leaders on both side of the political aisle understand that America’s roads, bridges, and waterways need attention. So why haven’t we done something about it?

Major infrastructure legislation has run into roadblocks at every turn in recent years. While both parties agree there is need for investment, there is little agreement on how to pay for it and what should receive priority for funding. That may change as members of Congress see overlap between infrastructure investment and COVID-19 relief. The agriculture community has been joined by the Western Governors Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and hundreds more organizations in pushing for a long-term infrastructure bill.

The last time that Congress passed a major infrastructure package was the “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act” in 2016 – and that expires on September 30, 2020, adding more incentive for Congress to act. In early July 2020, the House passed H.R. 2, the “Moving Forward Act”. Notably, the bill includes grants for rural infrastructure projects and expanding broadband access to under-served areas. But the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan did not earn bipartisan support.

Where do we go from here? Last summer, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced its own infrastructure legislation with different priorities. Separately, Senate Commerce Chair Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced a bill that would accelerate the build out of rural broadband infrastructure. The narrow window for action on infrastructure in 2020 is rapidly closing as we inch closer to the November elections.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

If you live in a city, perhaps you haven’t considered the long road that a soybean (or any other farm product) travels on aging roads, bridges, and dams. High speed Internet is something many of us take for granted. So it may be easy to overlook the role that infrastructure plays in helping American farmers find new markets and connecting rural communities with the world.

Renewed investment in roads and waterways, as well as e-connectivity, would make a big impact in rural communities that have been hit hard by the trade war and global pandemic, helping American farmers compete in the global economy.

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Sarah Hubbart provides communications strategy, content creation, and social media management for TradeVistas. A native of rural Northern California, Sarah has melded communications and policy throughout her career in Washington, D.C., serving in government affairs, issues management, and coalition building roles in the agricultural sector. She is an alum of California State University, Chico and George Washington University.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.

pork

BRINGING HOME THE BACON: U.S. PORK TRADE

The Year That Wasn’t

This year was supposed to mark a comeback for U.S. pork producers. Instead, the industry faces volatile markets and unprecedented supply chain disruptions. COVID-19’s domino effect on farmers, processors, retailers and consumers underscores the complexities of our modern food system.

In late April, meat industry executives warned the United States could soon face a meat shortage after processing facilities closed temporarily due to the spread of COVID-19 among employees. Total meat supplies in cold storage facilities across the United States totaled roughly two weeks’ worth of production. With processing at a standstill, meat supplies for retail grocery stores were expected to shrink by nearly 30 percent by Memorial Day, leading to increases in pork and beef price prices of as much as 20 percent, according to analysis by CoBank.

Shuttered plants also meant that farmers had nowhere to send their mature pigs, creating a massive livestock backlog. While many meat processors have re-opened as of May 2020, hog farmers may yet be forced to euthanize as many as seven million pigs in the second quarter of 2020, a loss valued at nearly $700 million. The Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute forecasted a total loss of $2.2 billion for the U.S. pork industry in 2020 due to the pandemic.

US 3rd largest pork producer

Going Whole Hog on Exports

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States is the world’s third-largest producer and consumer of pork, shipping on average more than 5 billion pounds of fresh and frozen pork internationally each year since 2010.

But this dominant role in world pork trade is a fairly recent phenomenon. The United States became a net exporter of pork in 1995. Exports jumped from two percent of total production in 1990 to 21 percent in 2016. What made this spike possible?

The U.S. pork industry has gone through a major restructuring since the mid-1980s, shifting from small, independently owned operations to larger, vertically-integrated companies that contract with growers to raise pigs. This structure increased the industry’s productivity and year-round slaughter capacity. Between 1991 and 2009, the number of hog farms in the United States dropped by 70 percent but the number of hogs remained stable.

The National Pork Producers Council calculates that exports account for nearly 36 percent of the total $149 average value of a hog. While American pork is shipped to more than 100 countries, just four countries account for 75 percent of U.S. pork exports: Mexico, Japan, China, and Canada. It’s easy to see why implementation of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is important to U.S. pork producers: Mexico alone accounts for about one-third of all exports by volume. U.S. exports of pork increased 1,550 percent in value since 1989, when the United States first implemented a free trade agreement with Canada.

U.S. pork producers mainly compete with pork producers in the European Union, Canada, and Brazil for sales in overseas markets. American farmers were concerned they could lose market share in Japan after the United States did not join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and Japan made a trade deal with the European Union. Japan is the largest value market for U.S. pork and the second largest market by volume. However, pork exports there have been trending higher in 2020 following the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement.

Where US pork exports go

Higher on the Hog in China?

For the last two years, American pork producers have found themselves in the crosshairs of a trade war between the United States and China, a key export market. In April 2018, China levied a 25 percent retaliatory tariff on many U.S. pork imports in response to Section 232 tariffs put in place by the United States. In 2019, China again retaliated against American pork, this time in response to Section 301 tariffs.

Before the trade war, China was the second-largest market for U.S. farm exports (after Canada). In 2016, China purchased nearly $20 billion in American farm products but sales dropped sharply in 2018 to $7.9 billion.

The “Phase One” U.S.-China trade agreement went into effect on February 14, 2020. It includes a commitment from China to import an additional $12.5 billion in U.S. agricultural products during 2020 on top of a 2017 baseline of about $24 billion. The agreement also provides access for a larger variety of U.S. pork products and restores access for processed pork products, which had been blocked by China.

As part of this deal, on February 17 China announced tariff exclusions for 696 products, including pork. In the first quarter of 2020, China bought $5.05 billion in U.S. farm goods, up 110 percent from last year. China’s pork imports almost tripled from March 2019, reflecting a major domestic supply gap caused by African Swine Fever (ASF).

However, concerns remain if it is feasible for China to meet the purchase targets set in the agreement. Through March 2020, U.S. Census Bureau data show that U.S. agricultural exports to China were only at 37 percent of year-to-date targets. The American Farm Bureau Federation found that U.S. agricultural exports to China need to accelerate by 114 percent each month from May through the rest of the fiscal year to meet the “Phase One” target.

China ag purchases fall in trade war

Not Exactly “Year of the Pig” for Pork Industry

The possibility of U.S. sales to China going unfulfilled seems surprising. Another virus – ASF – has been ravaging China’s pork output since August 2018. ASF is a highly contagious, deadly pig disease with no known treatment or vaccine. It does not affect humans or food safety but it has had a devastating impact on China’s pork industry, the world’s largest, leaving a shortage in domestic supply.

Despite low officially reported cases of ASF, as many as 350 million pigs died from the disease in China during 2019. (And because the disease continues to spread across borders, one quarter of all the world’s pigs may die from ASF.) After more than a year of declining pork output, China’s total pork supply gap is estimated at 18 million tons – a figure much larger than total global supplies. Chinese consumers have faced record high prices for pork, traditionally their protein of choice. Some parts of the country also faced meat shortages due to disrupted supply chains during the COVID-19 quarantine.

To address persistent high prices, the Chinese government auctioned off a small amount of frozen pork from publicly held pork reserves, but the move was largely symbolic and had a limited short-term impact on prices. The government’s total pork reserve volumes are a national secret and not publicly available.

Enter: Coronavirus

As American hog farmers were positioning to fill China’s need to import more pork, enter the coronavirus in early 2020, which threw the U.S. pork market into extreme volatility.

After COVID-19 forced processing plants to temporarily close, U.S. pig prices dropped 27 percent in about a week, reducing profits for pig producers while consumers paid more for pork at the grocery store. The demand for meat often takes a hit during economic recessions as consumers keep a close eye on their grocery bill. At the same time, the industry lost major food service markets such as restaurants, universities, and elementary schools that were also shut down.

To help pork producers and other farmers, USDA on April 17 announced the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) to provide $19 billion in emergency aid to farmers and ranchers hit by market disruptions. CFAP includes $16 billion in direct payments to producers and $3 billion in purchases of fresh produce, meat, and dairy products for distribution through food banks. USDA will purchase an estimated $100 million per month in pork and chicken, along with other food products, beginning in May. Nonetheless, an industry-funded analysis by Iowa State University found that American hog farmers will lose $5 billion (or $37 per pig) due to reduced prices for pork and shuttered processing plants.

US pork shipments to China

Saving Our Bacon

America’s pork industry has been beset with uncertainty in recent years. The latest Purdue University-CME Group Ag Economy Barometer found that the unknowns surrounding the pandemic have further decreased farmer optimism to a four-year low, with 67 percent of farmers saying they are worried about the impact of the coronavirus on their business.

Prior to COVID-19, U.S. farmers were already reeling from lost sales due to China’s tariffs. The saving grace for U.S. pork producers now is that pork exports are actually ramping up.

During March and April, the number of pigs slaughtered per day decreased by 40 percent, but shipments of U.S. pork to China more than quadrupled, including whole carcasses as well as products that Americans generally don’t eat, like feet and organs. The U.S. Meat Export Federation estimated that so far in 2020, about 31 percent of U.S. pork has been exported with one-third of that volume going to China.

That means that in the near term, increasing exports will remain vital for the U.S. pork industry to weather the coronavirus storm as processing capacity gets back online and domestic sales begin to rebound.

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Sarah Hubbart provides communications strategy, content creation, and social media management for TradeVistas. A native of rural Northern California, Sarah has melded communications and policy throughout her career in Washington, D.C., serving in government affairs, issues management, and coalition building roles in the agricultural sector. She is an alum of California State University, Chico and George Washington University.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.
farm

A SHORTAGE OF FARM GUEST WORKERS COULD THREATEN AMERICA’S HARVEST

Harvest season is here

Right now, acres and acres of lettuce sit ready to be picked in California’s Salinas Valley – an area known as the Salad Bowl of the World. But who will harvest it?

The Golden State is an agricultural powerhouse, producing more than 400 commodities, including one-third of all U.S.-grown vegetables and two-thirds of our fruits and nuts. In 2019, California’s agriculture exports totaled $21.02 billion, ranking first among all states in the value of farm exports for the last twenty years. California’s almonds are a favorite of the European Union, its dairy products ship to Mexico, California pistachios travel to China, and the state’s high-quality rice is increasingly popular in Japan.

Spring means harvest season is here – or will be soon – for many crops in California and around the country, from asparagus to cucumbers to tomatoes and more. Thousands of workers are needed to pick these crops. And over the years, those workers have become harder and harder to find – a challenge that is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Labor shortages cause farm losses

The American Farm Bureau Federation says that U.S. agriculture needs 1.5 to 2 million hired workers. These challenging, often seasonal, positions are essential to food production – but few U.S. citizens are willing to fill them. A California Farm Bureau Federation survey found that 56 percent of California farmers have been unable to find all the workers they need during the last five years.

While some farmers are shifting to labor-saving technologies, others can’t afford the expense of mechanization. And many of the high-value fruits and vegetables that California is known for must be harvested by hand to ensure their quality.

Given this chronic labor shortage, immigrants – most from Mexico – play an increasingly crucial role in our food system. Foreign-born workers can legally come to the United States to perform short-term farm labor under the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Worker Program, often referred to as the H-2A visa program.

56 percent cant find workers needed

Temporary labor through H-2A program

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 established the agriculture-focused H-2A program and a separate H-2B program for skilled workers in industries like healthcare and tech. The H-2A program is the primary way that U.S. farmers can legally hire immigrant labor from countries deemed eligible by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The process requires several steps and fees.

To participate, farmers must first receive a temporary labor certification for H-2A workers from the Department of Labor (DOL). This should be submitted 60 to 75 days before workers are needed. Then, farmers must file a petition to the DHS U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). After USCIS approves the petition, prospective H-2A workers outside the U.S. apply for a visa through the U.S. Department of State at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate and seek admission to the U.S. with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at a U.S. Port of Entry.

Open positions unable to fill

Rules are in place so that the H-2A program does not take jobs from domestic workers or lower the average wage. Before hiring H-2A workers, farm employers must demonstrate to the DOL that they are unable to recruit U.S. citizens for their open positions. They are also required to pay a state-specific minimum wage that may not be lower than the average wage for crop and livestock workers in their region during the prior year, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate.

Once approved, H-2A visa holders are allowed to work in the U.S. temporarily. The visa can be re-approved annually for up to three years. A worker loses their H-2A status if they leave their job. After a worker has three years of H-2A status, they are required to leave the United States for at least three months before applying to receive a H-2A visa again. The H-2A visa does not apply to a worker’s family members and does not give workers a way to gain permanent legal status. Unlike the H-2B program, there is no cap set on the total number of H-2A visas that can be granted each year.

number farmer workers exceeds visas

Greater need than visas

In 2019, nearly 258,000 immigrant workers were granted H-2A visas, with most working in Florida, Georgia, Washington, California, and North Carolina. Participation has jumped from 48,000 positions certified in 2005. However, the number of farm workers that are needed each year far surpasses the number of H-2A visas that are granted. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that the percentage of farm workers who are not legally authorized to work in the United States grew from 14 percent in 1989 to more than 50 percent in recent years.

While the H-2A program has grown in size, both farmers and farm worker advocates are critical of it. Farmers say it is a complicated, expensive process to navigate. Furthermore, year-round agriculture sectors like dairy farming, pork production or even mushroom farming can’t use the program since it is only available to seasonal industries. Labor groups argue H-2A needs reform to provide more protections to workers.

Agriculture’s workforce challenges recently received some attention on Capitol Hill. In December 2019, the full House of Representatives passed the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act (H.R. 5038). Among its many changes, the bill would make H-2A more flexible for employers and establish a new, capped program for year-round workers. It would also provide a pathway to permanent resident status for farm workers and include new enforcement measures. While the House’s passage of H.R. 5038 marks the first time that body has approved immigration legislation since 1986, the bill has not received a vote in the Senate.

The Trump Administration has also shown interest in updating the H-2A program, streamlining the application process on the USDA website. DOL issued a proposed rule in September 2019 that would update how the Adverse Effect Wage Rate is calculated, among other provisions. That rule has not yet been finalized. Additionally, in October 2019 the DOL issued a final rule to modernize the market labor test by allowing farmers to advertise jobs on a central online registry rather than a local print newspaper.

critical industry

COVID exacerbating labor shortage

Travel restrictions and government closures due to COVID-19 are adding to the concerns about America’s shortage of farm workers. The U.S. stopped processing non-emergency visas like H-2A in Mexico on March 18, 2020 out of health concern for U.S. Embassy employees. This immediately led to calls of alarm from agriculture stakeholders who are looking ahead to a busy spring and summer season.

The State Department later said it would continue processing H-2A applications and granted new flexibility so both new or returning workers would not be required to go to a U.S. consulate for an interview according to social distancing protocol. The DOL announced additional, temporary H-2A flexibilities in April 2020 to help prevent a labor shortage. However, governments around the globe continue to enforce travel restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus, potentially keeping workers from the harvest.

Some farmers are reporting that they are unable to get workers on time. In Canada, foreign workers have been delayed by border restrictions and canceled flights. Once they arrive, the Canadian government requires workers to be quarantined for 14 days (with pay) before they can begin work. The United States does not have a similar quarantine requirement but American farmers are concerned that fruit and vegetable harvests will still be impacted. Workers who have arrived are in the fields for longer hours due to the labor shortfall. Abad Hernandez Cruz, a Mexican farm worker in Georgia, told Reuters why he is working 12+ hours a day: “if the farm doesn’t produce, the city doesn’t eat.”

Agriculture is a critical industry

Agriculture has been deemed a critical industry during the pandemic. Americans are seeing firsthand the strengths and vulnerabilities of our complex food supply chain. One paradox is that farmers across the country have been forced to dump millions of gallons of milk and destroy millions of pounds of fresh food while some grocery store shelves go bare. The widespread closure of restaurants, hotels and schools has left farmers with no market for half of their crops due largely to the differences in Americans’ eating habits while quarantined at home.

So far, a lack of labor has not been a major force behind this food dumping. However, the situation could change if the pandemic persists longer into the harvest season or if farm workers begin testing positive for COVID-19. Farmers are also concerned that fewer workers will apply for H-2A visas over fears of catching the virus. Without enough workers, leafy greens, berries, and cucumbers would likely be the first crops to be left fallow, followed by peaches, plums, nectarines, and citrus.

The important role that guest workers play in ensuring America’s food supply during the pandemic underscores the interconnected nature of global agriculture trade. In reality, without H-2A and other immigrant labor, that romaine lettuce in Salinas would never make it to your salad bowl, or to other dinner tables around the world.

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Sarah Hubbart provides communications strategy, content creation, and social media management for TradeVistas. A native of rural Northern California, Sarah has melded communications and policy throughout her career in Washington, D.C., serving in government affairs, issues management, and coalition building roles in the agricultural sector. She is an alum of California State University, Chico and George Washington University.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.

national parks

COVID-19 SHOWS THE ECONOMIC IMPACT OF TRAVEL EXPORTS TO OUR NATIONAL PARKS

America’s Best Idea

One of the United States’ fastest-growing exports isn’t a product but rather, the opportunity to have an authentically American experience in the great outdoors of our National Parks. However, even these wild places can’t escape the economic impact of COVID-19.

Travel is the United States’ second-largest export, totaling $255 billion in 2019. Tourism has grown to be the quiet hero of trade. Visitor spending supports the broad “travel industry” of lodging, food service, recreation, transportation and retail, while also contributing tax revenue to local and state governments.

And increasingly, international travelers come here seeking a glimpse of America’s Best Idea – the National Parks – which offer natural beauty and distinctly American heritage that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Visitation to the National Park sites reached 318 million in 2018, an increase of 16 percent over ten years. One-third of international travelers to the U.S. included a visit to a National Park in their itinerary.

National Parks visitors

That’s the Ticket

Travelers from Asia have been a fast-growing segment of visitors to our public lands. In 2016, one million travelers from Asia Pacific countries visited the National Parks, with a large percentage coming from China. The number of Chinese tourists in America has fallen somewhat in recent years given trade tensions and the strength of the U.S. dollar making travel more expensive. But Chinese tourists are still the biggest spenders of all international travelers here, spending $34.6 billion in 2018.

International and domestic tourism to the National Parks is a major economic driver. Across the entire United States, the National Park Service found that visitor spending supported 329,000 jobs and $40 billion in economic output in 2018. More than 268,000 of those jobs were located in the parks’ gateway communities. The economies of these often small, remote towns are closely intertwined with the popularity of the parks. Tourists eat out at restaurants, they stay in hotels, they buy gas, they take home souvenirs – all purchases that support local jobs.

Local Landmarks

Page, Arizona is a perfect example of how tourism to public lands impacts local economies. About 7,500 people call this quiet town perched atop a red rock mesa their year-round home. But more than 4 million visit the region each summer to enjoy the nearby Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Lake Powell is the second-largest man-made lake in the United States and is a top destination for houseboat rentals. Millions more travel to Page to snap a selfie with Instagram-famous natural wonders like Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend.

Given its central location, Page has also become a favorite home base for adventurers looking to explore the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, or the Grand Canyon, which is the most popular of all National Park sites among international travelers. U.S. Route 89 – also known as the National Park Highway since it connects seven western National Parks – runs right through town. The iconic wild west vistas of Monument Valley are also close by.

In 2018, Glen Canyon’s 4.2 million visitors spent $411 million in the region, supporting 5,030 jobs. More than 96 percent of that spending came from out-of-town visitors. That count was set to climb even higher after Lake Powell was named one of the Best Places to Visit in 2020 by Forbes. Spring break is traditionally the start of Page’s busy season and restaurants, tour companies, and hotels have been gearing up for the annual influx of visitors.

Parks spending supports jobs

Turning a Page

But then, COVID-19 happened. Page – like other gateway communities across the U.S. – is in uncharted territory. What happens when international borders are closed and domestic tourist travel is discouraged? How should towns with limited medical infrastructure prepare for the worst?

In an effort to slow the pandemic, the Administration banned international travel to the U.S. from China, Europe, Iran, Ireland and the UK. China is currently the third most important overseas market for U.S. tourism. The U.S .Travel Association warns that decreased travel due to COVID-19 could mean a loss of $355 billion in total travel spending – a negative economic impact six times that of 9/11.

So far, the National Park Service has decided to keep most parks open while waiving the entrance fee and enforcing new “social distancing” rules to protect the health of employees. However, individual park superintendents have the authority to modify operations as needed. Some parks – like California’s Yosemite, another especially popular destination among international tourists – have opted to shut down completely.

In Page, precautions are being taken to protect the community from COVID-19. Tour guides are pausing their operations. Restaurants are switching to take-out only. The Navajo Nation closed the entrance to Monument Valley. But the extent of the impact on this summer’s visitor numbers remains to be seen.

Covid losses due to travel

Global Icons Abandoned

And Page is not the only community navigating this new reality. Moab, a popular adventure destination in Utah for rock climbers and visitors to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, is encouraging tourists and spring breakers to stay home to prevent a strain on local hospital resources. The state of Colorado, home of Rocky Mountains National Park, now recommends that visitors “should seriously consider canceling nonessential travel”.

A similar scene is playing out around the world. Other countries are moving to ban entry for international travelers and popular sites like Mount Everest have been shut down. Meanwhile, communities that rely on tourism are coming to terms with the economic impact of the pandemic. The European Union estimates it is losing $1.1 billion each month due to lost tourism from China alone. Italy has also been hit hard. The world’s most iconic sights in Rome and Venice that are usually packed with crowds are now empty. It could mean a loss of $12.5 billion for Italy’s economy over the next three months.

These unprecedented times have made it easy to see the ripple effect tourism has in the economy. Communities are grappling with the critical challenge of protecting public health at the expense of one of their most important exports and one of the greatest sources of globally shared experiences – travel.

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Sarah Hubbart provides communications strategy, content creation, and social media management for TradeVistas. A native of rural Northern California, Sarah has melded communications and policy throughout her career in Washington, D.C., serving in government affairs, issues management, and coalition building roles in the agricultural sector. She is an alum of California State University, Chico and George Washington University.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.