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Rising veggie imports pressure farmers

(Friday, Jan. 30, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Juliana Barbassa, Associated Press, 01/28/04: FRESNO, Calif. - Americans' growing appetite for cheap vegetables year-round is feeding a steady rise in imports that is squeezing American farmers, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study.

Fresh vegetable imports went up by 7 percent in the first 10 months of 2003 a trend that may be elbowing U.S. farmers out of production, market analysts said.

"These foreign products flooding in make it very difficult to make a living," said Jeff Dolan, a Newman, Calif., tomato producer who has been in the business for 18 years. "The true independent tomato grower is virtually nonexistent now."

Fresh vegetable imports have been going up steadily 11 percent in 2001, 6 percent in 2002, 7 percent last year, said Gary Lucier, agricultural economist with the Economic Research Services branch of the USDA.

An influx of immigrants that favor fresh produce, including Latin Americans and Asians, also have helped drive up demand, Lucier said, but some farmers are clearly losing their grip on domestic markets.

Gilroy, a small town in California's Central Valley whose name has been synonymous with garlic and still elects a Garlic Queen during its annual Garlic Festival, has resigned itself to importing garlic from China, which produces 66 percent of the world's supply.

Last year, California asparagus farmers had to plow under whole fields, because the prices they would get wouldn't cover the expense of harvest.

This year, flooding in China has destroyed 40,000 acres of asparagus, boosting prices all over the world, California included, but that doesn't reverse the flow of foreign produce. In 1990, 30 percent of all asparagus consumed in the United States was foreign; now 65 percent comes from abroad, mainly Peru and Mexico.

The newcomers don't just fill the offseason gaps, said Cherie Watte, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission. They compete directly with local production, edging farmers out, and they also bring down the prices, making it harder for local farmers to earn a living.

"A great many have left the field, and others are continuing to scale back their operations," Watte said.

In 1999, there were about 36,000 acres of asparagus growing in California. Now there are 24,000.

"The industry is being devastated," Watte said. "It's a natural consequence of supply and demand, we know that, but it hurts to be on the losing side."

Tomato farmers also are pinched, with year-round imports from Mexico and from Canada's greenhouses. Competition of this sort is only expected to increase as new trade agreements are negotiated and other countries have easier access to the U.S. market, said Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Commission.

Meanwhile, Beckman said, farmers here are struggling with finding legal and inexpensive workers, with the rising costs of worker's compensation insurance and the general increase in input costs.

"It's not a level playing field," he said.

The transfer of production abroad has been felt industrywide for years, and many farmers agree with Beckman, blaming trade agreements that play up U.S. technology at the expense of low-tech horticulture.

"What our industry is asking our policymakers to do is allow us to have equal opportunities, not to be in a situation where you're managing the demise of your own business until there is nothing left to defend," said Bob Gray, president of Duda California, a grower, packer and shipper of fresh vegetables in California and Arizona.

If this trend continues, the United States may find itself relinquishing control over a large part of the produce that feeds the nation, farmers said.

"Control of our food supply should be a security imperative for the United States," said Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers association.