Problems facing fruit and vegetable growers present a unique opportunity for Iowa manufacturers of specialty farm equipment, including Deere & Co., Pella-based Vermeer Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing in Sheffield, among others.

Before I explain, here’s some background. 

A recent article in Specialty Crop, a publication of Florida-based AgNet Media, reports that increased competition from foreign growers, mainly in Mexico, unseated the United States in 2019 as the world’s largest net exporter of agricultural produce. 

The article said that “for the first time in over half a century since data were available” the United States reported an agricultural trade deficit of $1.3 billion in 2019.

What that means is the $140.1 billion worth of soybeans, corn, meat and other agricultural commodities that U.S. farmers sold overseas in 2019 was more than offset by the $141.4 billion worth of mostly fruits and vegetables imported for U.S. consumers that year.   

Trade data show the U.S. ag deficit grew to $3.7 billion in 2020, before returning to an $8.8 billion surplus in 2021. It’s unclear whether the surplus will hold this year or shrink back to a deficit.

In any case, it’s become increasingly clear that this trend is not good for U.S. producers of fruits and vegetables, many of whom are based in Florida and California.

“As competition from imported products intensifies, growers of many crops have been struggling to stay in business,” the Specialty Crop article said. 

The tomato industry is a good example, it said. 

U.S. producers grew 3.9 billion pounds of tomatoes in 2000, while Mexican imports amounted to 1.3 billion pounds. In 2021, those market positions “completely reversed, with Mexican imports becoming 3.9 billion pounds and the U.S. production dropping to 1.3 billion pounds,” the article said. 

“Over the same period, the United States lost approximately 70 percent of its fresh market cucumber production” with Mexican imports of fresh market cucumbers in 2021 reaching 5.5 times that of U.S. production, according to Specialty Crop. 

One reason for the sudden gains by Mexican producers is “generous subsidies” provided by the Mexican government “to boost production and exports,” the article reported. 

The report added that while growers in Georgia and Florida have lobbied for help from the U.S. government, “no progress has been made” because of what it described as “a lack of political will to make any moves that could potentially escalate the disputes and spill over to other sectors such as corn and soybeans, which have received much of the U.S. government support for decades.” 

Nevertheless, the article continued, “the landscape of agriculture has changed,” and requires “a change of mentality in Washington.”

In addition to changes to agricultural support policy, it recommended immigration reform “to increase the availability of farm labor and reduce costs,” because higher labor costs in the United States are a key factor in commodity price differences. 

Ultimately, however, what is needed is “research and innovation stimulus programs to accelerate the development and deployment of key technologies, particularly mechanization and automation, [that] would make the industry more sustainable and competitive,” the article said.

As things stand now, it noted, “strawberry production in Florida costs about $6,000 more per acre in labor costs than in Mexico.”

That’s where Deere, Vermeer, Sukup and other Iowa technology innovators come in. 

Iowa’s farm equipment manufacturers have long track records of being able to create machinery that can replace hand labor when it comes to protecting and harvesting. 

Iowa-made machines long ago replaced the hand labor that was once needed to harvest corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton. 

As a result, those staples became row crops with large, complicated machines quickly performing the work that once required countless human hands. 

Given the right incentives, I’d like to believe that innovative Iowa engineers could do the same for tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers and other grocery store staples.