Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Florida Growers Say Time Is Ripe to Stem Mexican Tomato Flow

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Florida Growers Say Time Is Ripe to Stem Mexican Tomato Flow

Article excerpt

A FRESH surge of Mexican immigrants into the United States -- we're talking vegetables now -- has American farmers crying for relief.

"They're taking over our entire market," charges Wayne Hawkins, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange.

Last month his organization, accounting for 97 percent of Florida's tomato output, petitioned the US International Trade Commission (ITC) for quota or tariff relief.

Consumers are unlikely to reap savings from the tomato surplus -- grocery stores tend to keep prices stable, pocketing the extra profit when wholesale prices collapse, tomato industry experts say.

But the tomato tiff has the potential to put President Clinton in an awkward political position. Having backed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and pumped $20 billion into Mexico in a controversial peso bailout plan, Mr. Clinton may have to decide this month to dampen Mexico's economy-strengthening tomato exports, depending on the ITC's findings.

Clinton's reprieve may be that the complaints to date are relatively localized.

California growers are not kicking up a fuss, notes Jim Zion, program manager of agricultural exports at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Mexican vegetable exports "tend to be in the off-season for us," he says.

And some US produce farmers aren't waiting for a government solution. They're moving south to take away the home field advantage from Mexican growers.

Earlier this year, one former president of the tomato exchange switched 500 acres of production to Mexico. A current board member, Monsanto-backed Gargiulo LP, also grows tomatoes south of the border.

"We're all a little guilty of that," says Bobby Lackey, president of J.S. McManus Produce Company Inc. in Weslaco, Texas. His 60-year-old firm brings cantaloupes, onions, broccoli, and carrots from Mexico and grows more on 4,000 acres in south Texas.

American companies have long raised onions near the Mexican city of Tampico, Mr. …

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