Time for consumers to pay more for produce?

It's time for American consumers to put their money where their mouths are. If they demand American-grown fruits and vegetables instead of foreign alternatives, they're going to have to do their part to insure American growers stay in business.

A starkly simplistic view? For some, yes. But for others, including Joseph Kemble, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System horticulturist specializing in vegetable production, the issue really is that crystal clear. And the sooner American consumers realize it, they better off they — and farmers — will be, he says.

Kemble, who is also an Auburn University associate professor of horticulture, believes an international panel's recent refusal to grant American farmers extended use of a key farm chemical amounts to a watershed event not only for fruit and vegetable growers, but for American consumers in general. Opponents of the banned farm chemical, methyl bromide, contend it is a major contributor to ozone depletion. But many farmers, particularly American farmers, say it is essential to their long-term economic survival.

The decision is highly significant, Kemble says, because it may seriously undermine American growers' ability to compete with counterparts in Third World countries. Unlike American producers, these farmers aren't covered by the methyl bromide ban.

There is no single replacement for methyl bromide, a multi-purpose farm chemical that is used to control weeds and soil-borne pathogens and diseases. In addition, many of the alternatives to methyl bromide are beyond the reach of many financially-strapped producers, especially small-scale farmers, Kemble says. Meanwhile, the cost of methyl bromide, which has not been completely phased out, is almost double what it was last year.

“The worst-case scenario is that (because of this phase-out) many producers simply will have to get out of production agriculture entirely,” he says. “Yes, they'll try for a few more years, but they'll reach the point where they just can't produce a crop successfully. Controlling soil-borne diseases and weeds simply will get harder and harder.”

Crop rotation, in theory at least, is an option for growers contending with soil-borne diseases, Kemble says. The problem is that renting additional land simply isn't an option for many farmers. Even if they had the money to rotate, farmers are often located in areas where zoning ordinances or urban sprawl prevent land from being diverted to agricultural use.

Many farmers already have reached the end of their ropes, Kemble says. Many others are close to the end. Some aren't quite there yet, but are far enough along to see what is coming, he adds.

With more and more producers calling it quits, could this portend the end of the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry? Perhaps, Kemble says, stressing that the implications are as far-reaching for consumers as they are for farmers.

“How can we continue competing with countries such as China that have such cheap labor forces and that can turn out produce at much cheaper costs?” Kemble asks.

The consequence, he says, will be a declining American farming sector and a consumer public increasingly dependent on foreign-grown fruits and vegetables.

“I don't think Americans want to depend entirely on foreign-grown produce,” he says. “On the other hand, if they want the country to remain self-sufficient, they're going to have to realize that producers need a helping hand.”

Part of this helping hand, he says, will involve making a minimal level of investment in agriculture by supporting research into more effective ways to control common crop pests and, yes, even paying slightly higher prices for American-grown produce.

“You can't expect the farmer to absorb all the costs,” Kemble says. “For American industry to remain viable, some of this should be borne by consumers. If they demand top quality produce, they should be willing to pay more.”

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