Ottawa County

West Michigan farmers share concerns with USDA Secretary

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue spent last Friday in West Michigan and Northern Indiana. The Michigan leg of his trip began with a stop at Crossroads Blueberry Farm in West Olive, between Holland and Grand Haven. 

Crossroads Farm is a fourth-generation operation owned by Dave and Kelly Reenders, and their daughter and son-in-law, Amber and Luke DeHaan.

Perdue later visited Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes, a frontline organization that gathers and warehouses products for food pantries. The organization is a key partner in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box program.

Along with invited guest farmers, attendees included Michigan Farm Bureau State President Carl Bednarksi, U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland), and state Sen. Roger Victory (R-Hudsonville).

Markets, seasonal pests, and praise for the Farmers to Families Food Box distribution were on the minds of those who attended and talked with the USDA’s leader.

Trade issues

Shelly Hartman, co-owner of True Blue Farms in Grand Junction and Vice President of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, cited the influx of foreign blueberries into the country during peak blueberry season. 
Shelly Hartman of True Blue Farms in Grand Junction explains economic impacts of foreign blueberries flooding U.S. markets during peak harvest season during a farm visit with Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue.
“We are facing challenges in our own backyard in the most critical time in our season,” she says.

Hartman states that Mexico, Peru, Chile, Canada, and Argentina shipped more than 472 million pounds of blueberries combined directly into U.S. markets during peak fresh season in 2019, in addition to frozen blueberries throughout the year. 

Where domestic producers receive an average of $2.03 USD return per pound, imported berries return an average of $2.37 USD based on exchange rates alone.

Cost advantage

Lower labor costs in South America and less stringent pesticide regulations give South American growers the advantage in cost of production over American farmers. Because of additional food safety regulations in the U.S. — and now COVID-19 precautions adding to the expense — U.S. blueberry producers are operating at a .095 loss per pound in the fresh market. 

Perdue said specialty crop concessions were among U.S. Trade Representative Robert Leithauser’s top five items in negotiating the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), recently adopted by all three nations.

However, specialty crops were a line in the sand with Mexico and, ultimately, trade protection for the U.S. crop was dropped from negotiations, according to Perdue.

A complex problem

“For all trade agreements to work, the U.S. cannot close markets to certain products, even if imports arrive during the peak season for blueberry or other fresh crop production,” Purdue says, sympathizing with the frustration growers feel.

He noted recent hearings on the fresh fruit orders, but calls the problem complex and complicated. 

“It is frustrating as a grower to see our markets overrun by a cheaper product,” Perdue says. “We know that much of that (lower cost) is from (lower) labor costs in products we buy from Mexico.”

Gather evidence

Purdue encourages trade associations, such as the Blueberry Council, to begin building evidence of anti-dumping violations and countervailing duties — an import tax imposed on certain goods in order to prevent dumping or to counter export subsidies — but warns the complicated task is subject to international court.

Coopersville fruit and vegetable grower Dave Gavin suggested a labeling system to identify U.S.-grown produce. Perdue pointed out that a previous country of origin labeling (COOL) initiative by cattle producers was shot down as illegal by the World Trade Organization. 

“For every problem, there seems to be a simple solution,” Perdue says. “And that solution is usually wrong.”

Invasive species control

Gavin was also concerned with invasive species’ impacts on Michigan’s specialty crop industry. Pests such as the Spotted Wing Drosophila (a fruit fly) escape detection during border inspections, leaving producers with an emerging set of pest control problems.

He says there are few tools available for this late-season pest and the ones available are extraordinarily strong chemicals that come with a large price tag. 

“It’s frustrating anytime something like this happens,” Gavin says. “It increases costs and makes us less competitive. Consumers don’t want us to have to use any more chemicals.”

Program garners praise

Victory praised the Farm to Families Food Box program as a win-win for producers and consumers.

Through this program, farmers sell food previously destined for restaurants to distributors, who partner with the USDA to package family-size boxes of produce, dairy, and meat products. The boxes are then transported to food banks, community- and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits for distribution to Americans in need.

“It gives producers a market for produce that we are sometimes struggling to sell during this difficult time, and it provides fresh, healthy food straight to a consumer who is going to feed their family immediately with good, local produce,” Victory says. “It adds to the health of our people and our communities.”

Huizenga added that the program was enacted in just over three weeks with no opposition and complete bipartisan support. He says a normal government-sponsored food procurement program can take from 12-24 months to set in motion.

Karen Dietrich, an apple grower from Ottawa County’s Fruit Ridge, hailed the $4 billion program from both the farm standpoint and as a distribution volunteer. 

“Yes, we are selling at a lower price, but we are still selling,” she says. “And to be a part of the distribution and see people put the food in their trunks and know how much it means ... it is one more part of why we farm.”

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