Courtesy Jayson Korthius/Whatcom Family Farmers
The Washington Red Raspberry Commission has committed $150,000 to further investigate whether growers are the victims of unfair trade practices and if so what they can do.
The market has worsened since the commission retained a law firm last spring to undertake a preliminary probe, the commission’s executive director, Henry Bierlink, said.
“The alarm bells started to ring last spring. We wanted to see what happened in the summer and fall. The answer is, it’s turned in the wrong direction,” he said. “There are more concerns rather than fewer.”
Washington leads the U.S. in red raspberries grown for processing. The farmers, most of whom are in Whatcom County, compete for domestic customers with berries from many countries, including Mexico, Serbia, Peru, China and Chile. Imported fruit makes up about half the processed red raspberries sold in the U.S., according to the National Processed Raspberry Council, a commodity checkoff program overseen by the USDA.
The average price of processed red raspberries dropped to 97 cents a pound in 2016 from $1.45 the year before, according to the USDA. The value of a record harvest in Washington last year was less than the previous year’s drought-diminished crop, according to the USDA. Figures aren’t available for this year, though prices are reportedly below the cost of production.
Lynden farmer Marty Maberry, who’s on the raspberry commission board, said U.S. growers have different labor costs, food-safety standards and environmental regulations than their foreign competitors. All are putting domestic farmers at a disadvantage, he said.
“The long-term potential could be shifting these labor-intensive crops out of the country,” he said. “We’re trying to get a conversation going. Are we OK with that?”
The commission successfully petitioned for relief in 2002 and 1985 from berries being dumped into the U.S. and driving prices below production costs. Those cases, however, involved just one other country, Canada in 1985 and Chile in 2002. This time, red raspberries are coming into the U.S. from many countries, potentially complicating an anti-dumping claim.
The commission is also looking at the U.S. trade law that allows the president to impose tariffs to safeguard an industry threatened by an influx of imports. The law, however, has been rarely invoked, and for much larger industries.
The U.S. International Trade Commission is currently reviewing petitions from manufacturers of washing machines and solar technology. President George W. Bush used the law in 2002 to protect the steel industry. The World Trade Organization overturned the president’s order the following year.
The commission is looking at forming alliances with growers in other states, such as Florida tomato farmers, who also report suffering from a disparity in labor costs, especially compared to Mexico.
“The imports are gaining ground, and we’re losing it. NAFTA is not helping,” Bierlink said.
The red raspberry commission, a state body, must solicit proposals for legal services. Bierlink said he expects to have a firm retained by the middle of November.