With Mexican imports hammeringmarkets, Florida tomato and bell pepper farmers, who are facing certain production losses, question whether they can hang on for another year.

“This thing is hitting us really hard,” says Steve Bedner, whose family farms near Delray and Boynton Beach. “They’re delivering product into New York cheaper than we can grow it. If it continues, we’re out of business — that’s about all there is to it.”

Jim Alderman, who farms near Bedner, gives a concrete example: “This tomato deal is just really, really poor. Mexico is delivering a 20-pound bulk shipment for $3.85. Our breakeven is about $12,” he says.

Mexico recently stepped up its volume of greenhouse and shade tomato production, they say, while peppers are still mostly field-grown. Much of its tomato and pepper output enters the U.S. through the Nogales entry point.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in effect since 1994, allows Mexican produce to enter the U.S. duty-free. U.S. shipments to Mexico receive the same consideration, greatly benefiting corn, beef and pork producers, among others.

“We’re for free trade, but this free trade is not balanced for the farmer, at least not our kind of farmer,” Bedner says. “It really makes us look hard at Mexico. They were neutral in World War II. They’re not helping us in Afghanistan. Were they with us in Iraq? No. I believe in the U.S. —we’re all in this thing together. If we’re not, we need to think about things differently.”

John Whitworth, another Boynton Beach-based grower, thinks the situation is more severe now than in past years. Cold weather last year wiped out some of Florida’s crop, particularly in the Immokalee area, giving Mexican product an entré.

“This year, we’ve had warm weather and Florida’s production has been good. But the Mexicans geared up for another freeze. It didn’t happen. Now they’ve got all this stuff hitting the market and it’s killing us,” Whitworth says.

Further north in Maitland, in the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association office, Mike Stuart, the group’s president, agrees that the situation for many growers is dire.

“The market is beating the heck out of everybody and there are no signs of it getting better for this season. There just aren’t a lot of options,” Stuart says.

“The thing that is new is the development of shade culture in Mexico and a significant increase in their greenhouse volume. We’re seeing increased volume from there and market conditions in the tank. Unfortunately, there just aren’t a lot of solutions for us.”

So far, Mexican greenhouse tomato production this year is 121 percent more than last year, Stuart says, examining reports from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

“The total category is up 11 percent — that’s significant, and will impact prices. When you see that, it’s not surprising why prices are at the floor,” he says.

USDA-Economic Research Service figures show that Mexico shipped $1.8 billion worth of tomatoes to the U.S. in 2011, compared to $1.34 billion in 2010 and $1.12 billion in 2009. U.S. industry insiders agree that Mexican shipments stepped up considerably in 2012.

Stuart notes that NAFTA puts restrictions on Mexican shipments to the U.S. Tomatoes, for example, are prohibited from being shipped on consignment. All products must have an agreed-upon price before shipping. Prosecuting violators takes time, however, and vegetables are perishable, making it tough to act when violations occur.

“A legal trade remedy takes so long, I don’t know if the results are going to do anybody any good,” Stuart says.

“There are anti-dumping laws. When it comes to tomatoes, the NAFTA suspension agreement is in the hands of the Department of Commerce, to insure the provisions are being enforced. The laws against injurious imports are not designed for seasonal perishable commodities.