SAYULA, Mexico—An explosion in berry farming here, fed by a growing American obsession with breakfast smoothies and antioxidant-rich fruits, is fueling one of the thorniest disagreements in the talks to redo the North American Free Trade Agreement that resume this coming week.
“Ten years ago, all the fields were for vegetables,” said Héctor Gómez, production manager for a raspberry farm here. “Now, all we grow is berries.…It’s just much more profitable.”
Mr. Gómez says sales have grown by about 30% per year in recent years owing to increased demand in the U.S., hardier plant varieties and cheap labor.Photo: Robbie Whelan/The Wall Street Journal
The value of Mexico’s berry crops has grown more than fivefold in dollar terms over the last decade to an estimated $1.26 billion in 2017, according to Mexico City-based agricultural consultant GCMA. The amount of land planted for berry crops has more than tripled over the period to 88,000 acres.
American farmers, however, complain that their Mexican rivals enjoy unfair advantages, including low-cost farm labor, state subsidies and a year-round growing season that lets them dump cheap berries on the U.S. market when the two countries’ growing seasons overlap in the late spring.
The issue has emerged as a key bone of contention in Nafta renegotiations, which enter their fourth round on Wednesday in Washington. U.S. President Donald Trump has highlighted agriculture as a crucial area where the 1994 free-trade accord needs to be improved.
American farmers in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Texas and California say that the Mexicans often sell berries in the U.S. at discounts of as much as 25% below production cost.
“Nafta has hurt me a lot more than it’s helped me, by allowing Mexico to dump cheap berries here, much more than I’ve been able to sell to them,” said Steve McMillan, a 64-year-old grower from Enigma, Ga., who has about 60 acres of blackberries on his seventh-generation family farm.
Mr. McMillan said that Mexican-produced berries sell for between $5 and $10 per case (a case is 12 six-ounce cups of berries) in the early summertime. “We have to sell them for $12 just to break even,” Mr. McMillan said, mainly because of the cost of farm labor, which can cost about $200 per picker per day. Farm workers in Mexico typically make about one-tenth what workers in the U.S. earn.