May 18, 2020Blueberry growers start effort to grow domestic sales
Blueberry growers from the Southeast and Midwest are vocal members of a campaign to educate the public and politicians about the realities of cheap imported produce.
American Grown was launched less than a year ago by a group of berry farmers including Lawton “Bud” Chiles III of Jubilee Orchards near Tallahassee, Florida.
“The goal of the campaign has always been to educate and engage consumers about what’s going on with their food supply,” Chiles said. Chiles said many consumers don’t understand the financial pressure many U.S. farms face.
Increasingly, Chiles said, importers from Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas are not only filling in the market during the domestic off-season but competing with harvests of U.S. farms.
“American Grown, our campaign, really doesn’t have a problem with imports in the off-season of our growers,” he said. “Our problem is that these … importers and the processors and corporations that now control our food marketing in the United States have figured out how to cultivate and grow in our fresh season, and flood our markets with fresh imports during the season for our growers. … What that’s doing is crushing our farmers.”
Florida’s blueberry harvest runs late February to mid-May each year, and Georgia’s typically picks up in mid-May running until June. But Chiles said blueberry imports during that time have been roughly double what’s being grown domestically. And it’s not just the Southeast’s problem. Michigan blueberry grower Rex Schultz, president of the Michigan Blueberry Advisory Committee and a member of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council’s Technology Committee, said Michigan growers have seen imports during their harvest times double from about 6 million pounds in 2016 to 12 million pounds in 2019.
“We’re not going to be able to stop imports from coming in,” Schultz said, but what they can do is educate consumers.
State-mandated minimum wages in the U.S. have made growing abroad relatively cheap, and even with shipping costs, local farms can’t compete with.
“They’re paying growers $7 a day, we’re paying workers $13-15 an hour,” Chiles said. “That’s what American Grown is about, to say is because of these federal policies, we’re losing our food supply.”
American Grown is working on a sticker campaign to create consumer awareness. Regional U.S. grower groups who can certify produce as “American Grown,” would purchase stickers for berry clamshell-type packaging, boxes, or to affix on vegetables. The group originally started by berry growers is now reaching out to other commodity groups, such as tomato growers, to get involved.
“It’s essential for us to be able to build an authentic brand, and it helps a lot of these growers,” Chiles said. “Because they’re a commodity, and they don’t have a brand, they’re just getting squashed by profits every year, (and) they’re probably not making any money. But with an ‘American’ brand, that’s going to be something consumers want and marketers kind of have to turn to.”
Country of origin labeling (COOL) rules haven’t satisfied domestic growers. Chiles and Schultz said some produce importers have found ways to play down their “county of origin” labeling while playing up the address of their corporate offices in the U.S. Alarmingly, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service announced it would relax COOL enforcement during the COVID-19 crisis, to allow produce to be shifted from food service to retail.
So, their work isn’t finished. Chiles has hired a software system, EveryAction, to streamline advocacy efforts, although he and Shultz maintain their consumer education efforts come first. They have a website, www.demandamericangrown.org.
Schultz recently has been encouraged by some interactions he’s had just on social media.
“I have to say, the pandemic is opening people’s eyes,” Chiles said. “People are really much more concerned about food security – where their food is coming from, just like they are their essential medical stuff.”
— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor