“We’re trying to fit a square peg — our industry — into a round hole, and it doesn’t work. USDA has no tools they can apply, other than the bully pulpit.”

Much of Mexico’s new production is located in its traditional vegetable growing area in the state of Sinaloa, bordering the Pacific Ocean. The state’s capital city, Culiacan Rosales, has become a hub for vegetable production.

“Typically, when these kinds of things happen, they tend to correct themselves a year later,” Stuart says. “The risk for Florida is that 100 percent of that correction takes place here. If Mexico continues this growth, I don’t see how we can compete. We will see attrition in number of growers.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called enforcement of the NAFTA agreement “a slippery slope” when recently asked about it.

“The one ray of sunshine is that President Obama has announced the formulation of a trade enforcement agency to enforce existing agreements more aggressively,” he says.
“We, as a nation, are confronted with an ever-increasing number of barriers. When you’re king of the hill, people try to knock you off.”

Mexico will get a closer lookfrom federal enforcers, Vilsack says. “Trade agreements with the U.S. cannot be a one-way street. Dealing with Mexico can be frustrating. It’s difficult to do something about trade violations. It requires a formal process. That can take forever.”

Even though NAFTA is beyond USDA’s regulatory reach, the agency’s long-standing commitment to protect the interests of rural communities ought to encourage it to find some way of stabilizing Florida’s vegetable business, Stuart thinks.

“Since the economic downturn in 2008, the one constant for Florida has been agriculture — it’s the one thing that has been good. Tourism is down, housing is down, but agriculture has kept right on going,” Stuart says.

“Is there a rationale for trying to insure creating or maintaining the economic vitality for these industries in the face of market situations that are financially injurious to Florida farmers? This trade issue is without question the most difficult thing we face. It is full of complexity, and there is a lack of meaningful tools to try to resolve it. It’s very frustrating.”

The one thing helping south Florida tomato and pepper growers right now is the local food movement, Alderman says.

“People around here believe in that. It’s American grown; you know how it was produced. It keeps taxes in this county. We take time to ask people to support us. We say, ‘Remember the carbon footprint of what you’re eating. Remember the taxes. Remember food safety. They drive demand,” Alderman says.

“I don’t think fixing this is going to happen politically,” Bedner says. “Appealing to the conscience of the American people is the only thing that will save our industry.”

Bedner’s family operates a 9,000-square-foot market on a busy highway near Boynton Beach, and they make a point to talk with consumers there.

“We’re trying to get the right messageout in a passionate way. We want to educate the community about food,” he says.

“Green markets and people buying local — that’s the only shot we’ve got,” Alderman says.

“We have a viable ag industry here,” Bedner says. “Head-to-head, there’s no way Mexico can stay with us. If they’re going to sell here, they should have to abide by our food safety rules, our labor laws and our Environmental Protection Agency regulations.”