Jayson Korthius/Whatcom Family Farmers
A spring surge in imported red raspberries has soured the economics of the summer harvest, according to Washington growers.
Woodland farmer George Thoeny said he sells fresh raspberries at a profit at farmers’ markets and a roadside stand, but that he may lose money on fruit he sells for processing.
“The price has been a disaster, an all-time low,” he said. “The imports have just killed this industry.”
Farmers in the three red raspberry-growing states — Washington, California and Oregon — compete against an increasing volume of foreign fruit. The main competitor, Mexico, more than doubled exports to the U.S. between 2014 and 2017, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.
So far this year, imports from Serbia and Chile have also significantly increased. In April and May alone, 15.5 million pounds of frozen red raspberries came into the U.S. compared to 7.9 million pounds the year before.
The size and timing of the influx left Washington growers in some cases without buyers, particularly for berries that were to be sold for juice, Washington Red Raspberry Commission Executive Director Henry Bierlink said.
“That kind of sent the message to everybody, they can get product without paying much for it,” he said.
The raspberry commission suspects growers are being undercut by foreign fruit being dumped on the U.S. market at below the cost of production. Gathering evidence has been complicated by the way imports are labeled and reported, Bierlink said. The commission retained a Washington, D.C., law firm last year to investigate whether it had a case.
“We asked, and they said, ‘You don’t have much of one. You need better data,’” Bierlink said.
The state commission led successful challenges to Canadian trade practices in the mid-1980s and Chilean trade practices in the early 2000s. Even with better data, pursuing a new claim would be harder now, Bierlink said.
California has become a major red raspberry state, and many producers there also grow berries in Mexico. “They would have limited interest in suing themselves,” Bierlink said.
Another hurdle would be money. Bierlink estimates pursing a claim would cost $1 million to $2 million. Congress in 2005 repealed the Byrd Amendment, which awarded payments to U.S. companies that filed successful trade complaints. The World Trade Organization had ruled the practice illegal.
Unlike many sectors of the farm economy, trade does not benefit red raspberry growers, said Lynden farmer Jon Maberry, the raspberry commission chairman.
“We understand we don’t have the same position as some of the other ag commodities,” he said. “We would be happy if we could supply the U.S.”
Low-cost Mexican red raspberries that end up as an ingredient in juice or other products pose the biggest long-term threat to the U.S. industry, he said.
The raspberry commission is talking to policymakers about labeling laws to inform consumers that they are buying U.S. berries, Maberry said.
“We don’t want a bail out, we just want things to be fair,” he said. “We think it’s in the best interest of consumers to have the U.S. growing its own food.”