What major retailers can do to help save our family raspberry farmers losing out to foreign producers
In the northwest corner of Washington state near where the Canadian border meets the Pacific, there is a very special farming area. The sea-moderated climate, the rich but well drained soils, and generations of berry farming experience have resulted in this area producing up to 80% of the nation’s supply of frozen and processed raspberries, as well as producing more blueberries than almost any other farming area.
But this family farming heritage may be entering its last days. The prices farmers are able to get for their berries has plunged in the last few years. Their markets are being taken over by foreign producers from Mexico, Serbia, Poland, China, Chile and other countries. Most farmers are losing money on farming operations and now, even those with their own processing facilities, are under severe stress. The New York Times reported in 2018 that 51% of fruit consumed in the US is now produced by foreign farmers and imports continue to accelerate.
It’s complicated, but there are three basic reasons.
- Trade laws
- Rising labor and regulatory costs
- Lack of consumer information
Foreign producers are able to sell raspberries into the US frozen and processed food markets at far below US production costs because of loopholes in our trade laws. Small niche farm commodity producers, like raspberry growers, are at a severe disadvantage because of the very high costs and legal hurdles needed to address trade inequities. While farmers are working with administration officials, progress is slow and may not come in time.
Rising labor and regulatory costs.
Washington farmers face a severe shortage of domestic farm workers. Farmworkers are guaranteed among the highest wages in the nation because of our minimum wage laws, but harvest workers typically earn $20 to $30 per hour in peak season due to incentive pay. This compares to the $5 tp $11 per day minimum wage of many foreign producers. In addition to the extreme differences in direct labor costs, new regulations and laws continually add more costs in the name of worker and consumer protections. While in many cases these protect food safety and the environment, they do not apply to imported fruit and therefore serve to harm both workers and consumers as more food production shifts to foreign producers.
Lack of consumer information
The rise in foreign imports of food has not been accompanied by effective enforcement of laws relating to imported food nor consumer information. Few consumers are aware that the FDA reports imported food is five times more likely to have pesticide residues above limits than domestic food or that the CDC reports that food borne illnesses are rising at the same rapid pace as imported food. While consumers have shifted to organic foods, they have not been informed that much imported food that arrives as organic is actually grown conventionally and fraudulently designated organic in the distribution process to increase profits. Consumers are also not sufficiently aware that conventional farming provides significant advantages including improved environmental performance because of the necessity to apply non-synthetic pesticides and other chemicals to plants on a far more frequent basis when growing organic food.
What major retailers can do
The approximately 30 to 50 family farmers growing the nation’s raspberries do not have the resources to educate and inform consumers about the important issues of food safety, environmental performance, organic vs conventional farming, and the loss of valuable jobs among American farm workers. Partnering with major retailers who sell the triple berry mix so popular with consumers, for example, would go a long way to ensuring that our berry farmers in Northwest Washington state will be able to continue to provide the safest, healthiest, and the most environmentally sustainable berries in the nation. Without that help, consumers in the future will likely be left with no options except to purchase imported berries.