An increase in U.S. raspberries imports has some Whatcom farmers wondering whether it’s worth continuing this year’s harvest or staying in the industry.
The harvest is in full swing across Whatcom County as thousands of workers are busy picking. packing, selling and shipping. All berries represent 23 percent of Whatcom County’s farm value of $357 million in 2012, the last year data is available.
Harvest is always a critical time as farmers learn how much money they will earn for more than a years’ worth of work and investment. Good prices in some years offset low prices in others. This year farmers question if the fruit will be sold at all.
Low prices fueled by foreign competition create short- and long-term problems, said Jon Maberry and Brad Rader, two commercial farmers who each operate big facilities in Whatcom County. They took some time last week at the peak of the harvest to address a Whatcom County Council committee about the problems they face.
“It is a difficult situation,” said Rader, noting that some farmers may start pulling their raspberries instead of harvesting and switch to blueberries or get out of farming altogether.
Maberry told host Dillon Honcoop on the July 7 KGMI 790AM radio Farming Show that he would not be surprised if Whatcom County raspberry farmers plant half the 9,000 acres they currently use.
“Our plan is to ride this out, but many other farmers are wondering what to do,” said Maberry in a phone interview, adding that many farmers owe money on their land, making it tempting to sell with the current strong land prices.
The possible reduction of acreage is a big deal for Whatcom’s economy. Last year Whatcom farmers harvested 68.3 million pounds of raspberries, about 60 percent of the total U.S. crop. The field price has ranged from $1.42 a pound in 2015 to 78.5 cents a pound in 2017. At the County Council hearing it was noted that the break-even price to pay for expenses is around $1 a pound.
Along with supply-and-demand, in just two years other factors have played a much bigger role in the price of raspberries. Global trade and international law are now at the forefront and Whatcom farmers have little control.
The short-term import crisis is fairly straightforward. Washington Red Raspberry Commission Executive Director Henry Bierlink, who studies the amount of frozen raspberries imported into the U.S. each month, noticed a significant uptick in May and June, right before the Whatcom County harvest.
He said monthly imports typically average around 4 million pounds of frozen raspberries a month; that total jumped to more than 10 million pounds in May and just under 10 million pounds in June.
While it is unclear exactly where the extra frozen raspberries originated, Mexico and eastern Europe are strong possibilities, Bierlink said. The 20 million pounds coming into the U.S. market in that two-month period has led to raspberry buyers becoming less interested in the Whatcom County harvest, either pulling offers or offering much lower prices.
“I have never seen a flooding of the (raspberry) market like this right before the Whatcom harvest,” Rader said.
Not having a buyer ready during the raspberry harvest is a big problem, given the short shelf life of the delicate berry. Some farmers have tried to let the raspberries ripen longer, but that’s a dangerous game because they might fall to the ground or degrade more rapidly as temperatures rise, Maberry said.
Others, like Maberry and Rader, are moving ahead with the harvest, hoping the finances will work out.
“We don’t know what the impact will be (on prices), but we are not expecting good news,” Maberry said.
What this means longer term
While the farmers are currently dealing with the harvest and the short-term sales issues, they are also mindful of what this means in the coming years.
Whatcom farmers feel they are on an uneven playing field when it comes to competing in the U.S. market, Rader said. Mexico and eastern Europe have greatly increased raspberry production by offering different varieties that grow well in those countries. That likely means even more raspberries will be imported into the U.S.
The production growth is particularly striking in Mexico. According to data from an article on the website Fresh Plaza, Mexico exported around 147 million pounds around the world in 2016, more than double the 2014 total.
According to the Washington Red Raspberry Commission, 53 percent of the fruit U.S. consumers eat is foreign grown. Maberry said imported fruit generally goes through fewer regulations and growers pay significantly lower wages to workers, so they can offer U.S. buyers fruit at lower prices.
That trend should get everyone thinking about what the U.S. should be doing with food production and trade, Maberry said. If U.S. farmers are forced out of business, the U.S. will become even more reliant on food grown elsewhere.
“Is it smart to rely on other countries to feed us?” Maberry asked.
In a climate where many U.S. industries are concerned about trade wars and escalating tariffs, Bierlink has previously said the commission is exploring options on asking for tariffs on raspberry imports. That might help prevent the dumping of raspberries by other countries into the U.S., he said.
What is being done
The Washington Raspberry Commission is working on several strategies, including reaching out to legislators and consumers. They are also working with a trade law firm to consider pursuing potential trade violations, although Bierlink said that can be expensive and difficult to prove.
The commission has increased its own assessment rates on farmers in order to fund other projects, including improving consumer labels to show which raspberries are grown in the U.S.
Getting word out to consumers might be the most impactful, according to a report from the commission, which said, in part, “we believe as they (consumers) understand the differences in health, safety, worker protections and the environment, their consumer decisions will be affected but they will also want to know why this unfair trade situation was allowed to develop.”
Picture: Evan Abell, Raspberry farmers Manjit Gill, left, and Ajaib Chauhan at Chauhan’s raspberry field on Friday near Lynden. Whatcom County raspberry farmers are struggling to sell their berries this season after an increase in foreign imports.