Oct 9, 2020
Perdue outlines specialty crop trade policy in Michigan stop

When U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue spent time Aug. 21 in west Michigan and northern Indiana, he received feedback regarding challenges facing specialty crop operators, as well as witnessing the benefits of government programs pursued during the global coronavirus pandemic.

In Michigan, Perdue visited Crossroads Blueberry Farm in West Olive, between Holland and Grand Haven.

Crossroads is a fourth-generation operation owned by Dave and Kelly Reenders, and their daughter and son-in-law, Amber and Luke DeHaan.

Perdue also visited Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes, an organization that gathers and warehouses products for food pantries. The organization is a participant in the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program. A stop in Milford, Indiana, included Perdue’s participation in an agriculture and manufacturing town hall meeting.

The blueberry packing line at Crossroads
Farm. Photos: Gary Pullano

Along with invited guest farmers, attendees at Crossroads Farm included Michigan Farm Bureau President Carl Bednarksi, U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, and state Sen. Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville.

Upon his early-morning arrival, Perdue jumped into the driver’s seat of a blueberry harvester for what he indicated was his initial experience on such a machine. The trip in the field was followed by a tour of Crossroads’ processing and packing operation.

An outdoor roundtable with invited growers and farm owners featured discussions on several issues, including the Farmers to Families Food Box distribution program and the impact of foreign competition on specialty crop markets.

Shelly Hartman, co-owner of True Blue Farms in Grand Junction and vice chairperson of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC), cited the influx of foreign blueberries into the country during peak blueberry season.

“We are facing challenges in our own backyard in the most critical time in our season,” she said.

Michigan blueberry grower Shelly Hartman outlines challenges faced by U.S. growers in light of foreign competition.

Hartman’s presentation to Perdue showed that Mexico, Peru, Chile, Canada, and Argentina shipped more than 472 million pounds of blueberries combined directly into U.S. markets during peak fresh season in 2019, in addition to frozen blueberries throughout the year. While domestic producers receive an average of $2.03 USD return per pound, imported berries return an average of $2.37 USD based on exchange rates alone.

Hartman said lower labor costs in South America and less stringent pesticide regulations give those growers the advantage in cost of production over American farmers. Because of additional food safety regulations in the U.S. – which have become more daunting with COVID-19 precautions adding to the expense – U.S. blueberry producers are operating at a .095 loss per pound in the fresh market.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, left, looks on as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue receives feedback from Michigan growers.

Crossroads Blueberry Farm owner Dave Reenders urged Perdue to pursue putting “more teeth in our anti-dumping rules.”

Perdue said specialty crop concessions were among U.S. Trade Representative Robert Leithauser’s top five items in negotiating the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) adopted earlier this year by all three countries.

Related: ‘Fair trade’ measures pursued in new plan

However, Perdue said, specialty crop trade protections, including in-season restrictions on imports, were omitted from the agreement during negotiations with Mexico.

“It was in the USMCA, but we weren’t able to do it,” he said. “And we don’t want others limiting what we export. We want to play the game of getting into the export market with blueberries, also.

“For all trade agreements to work, the U.S. cannot close markets to certain products, even if imports arrive during the peak season for blueberry or other fresh crop production,” Perdue said.

“We’re not a protectionist country,” Perdue said. “With Mexico’s labor situation, what is the expectation about what we can legally and ethically do? U.S. consumers are affluent and everybody wants to be in our market.”

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue navigates a blueberry harvester in a field at
Crossroads Farm as owner Luke DeHaan and U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga look on.

Documentation essential

Perdue pointed to recent hearings and determinations on the fresh fruit orders (see accompanying story), but called the problem complex and complicated.

“It is frustrating as a grower to see our markets overrun by a cheaper product,” Perdue said. “We know that much of that (lower cost) is from (lower) labor costs in products we buy from Mexico.”

Perdue encouraged trade associations, such as the USHBC and the North American Blueberry Council, to begin building evidence of anti-dumping violations and countervailing duties – an import tax imposed on certain goods in order to prevent dumping or to counter export subsidies – but said the complicated task is subject to an international court.

“We need proof of dumping,” he said. “We need evidence in every crop. These are association-type of issues. We don’t expect the individual grower to do it.”

From left, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, senior advisor Kristi Boswell and farm owner Luke DeHaan discuss production practices at Crossroads Farms.

Coopersville fruit and vegetable grower Dave Gavin suggested a labeling system to identify U.S.-grown produce. Perdue pointed out that a previous country of origin labeling initiative by cattle producers was shot down as illegal by the World Trade Organization.

“For every problem, there seems to be a simple solution,” Perdue says. “And that solution is usually wrong,” he said.

Invasive species control

Gavin was also concerned with invasive species’ impacts on Michigan’s specialty crop industry. Pests such as the spotted wing drosophila (a fruit fly) escape detection during border inspections, leaving growers with costly pest control challenges.

He said there are few tools available for this late-season pest and the ones available are expensive pesticides. “It’s frustrating anytime something like this happens,” Gavin said. “It increases costs and makes us less competitive. Consumers don’t want us to have to use any more chemicals.”

Food Box program a hit

Victory complimented Perdue for the success of the Farm to Families Food Box program, which he called a successful effort for growers and consumers.

Through this program, farmers sell food previously destined for restaurants to distributors, who partner with the USDA to package family-size boxes of produce, dairy, and meat products. The boxes are then transported to food banks, community- and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits for distribution to Americans in need.

Workers pack boxes with blueberries at Crossroads Farms.

“It gives producers a market for produce that we are sometimes struggling to sell during this difficult time, and it provides fresh, healthy food straight to a consumer who is going to feed their family immediately with good, local produce,” Victory said. “It adds to the health of our people and our communities.”

Huizenga said the program was assembled in just over three weeks without opposition, receiving extensive bipartisan backing. He said a normal government-sponsored food procurement program can take from 12-24 months to establish.

Karen Dietrich, an apple grower from west Michigan’s Fruit Ridge, said the $4 billion program has worked well for farms. She’s also seen the benefit to consumers while serving as a distribution volunteer.

“Yes, we are selling at a lower price, but we are still selling,” she said. “And to be a part of the distribution and see people put the food in their trunks and know how much it means … it is one more part of why we farm.”

— Gary Pullano, managing editor

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P.O. Box 128
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