U.S. agriculture depends on world trade for its continued viability. More than $141 billion in agricultural goods were exported last year.
Still U.S. port facilities and waterway infrastructures are decades behind international competitors due to lack of funding.
“Three things continue to obstruct U.S. agricultural exports that could be delivered to all regions of the world, especially the rapidly growing Asian markets,” says Steve Baccus, an Ottawa County grain farmer who serves as Kansas Farm Bureau president. “This includes too many rules, regulations and a lack of investment in export facilities by Washington; the lack of cooperation between countries pertaining to international trade and regulations and trade requirements imposed by individual countries on one another.”
During the last two years Baccus has served as chair of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s trade advisory committee. Throughout this time, this committee has, traveled to countries, port facilities and waterways around the world to identify the many impediments to U.S. exports. During these travels they’ve also visited with food producers and seen crops first hand.
Illustrating his point about the need to upgrade and improve U.S. port infrastructures, Baccus used the example of Singapore, the largest port in the world. This facility was built by its government and one private businessman.
“In Singapore the cranes load and unload ships with one individual sitting in a computer booth two miles away,” Baccus said. “No union labor, no union guy crawling up and operating each (individual) crane each shift, each day.”
Yet, in this port facility half way around the world, a loaded ship leaves the port of Singapore every 12 minutes, Baccus said. A loaded ship leaves a U.S. port every one and one-half hours.
The same businessman who helped build the Singapore port is looking at building a similar port in Tijuana, Mexico.
If this investor has the resources to build the port in Singapore, he probably has the resources to build in Tijuana, Baccus said. If he has the resources to build these ports, he has the resources to build the infrastructure to move the goods from Tijuana to the U.S. border.
“What happens to West Coast ports if he builds a port like Singapore in Tijuana?” Baccus asks. “He’ll cause major problems all along the West Coast.”
And if this potential nightmare with Mexico isn’t enough, Baccus witnessed another real challenge facing the United States and its agricultural exports.
During a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, the Ottawa County grain farmer visited with several California fruit and vegetables growers. These food producers don’t have enough labor to harvest their valuable crops.
“We talked to a producer who grows string beans and garlic,” Baccus said. “He didn’t have enough labor to harvest both fields so he had to choose between the crops. This grower decided to mow down his string beans so he would have the labor to harvest his garlic. These beans cost him between $2,000-3,000 an acre to plant.”
Another California grower was forced to leave 20 acres of vegetables in the field to rot, Baccus said. This crop could have yielded him nearly $8 million.
In California and other parts of this country agricultural producers are shifting to different crops that can be harvested by machines because they cannot find available labor.
“Farmers can’t find the labor from south of our border to pick crops that must be harvested by hand,” Baccus said. “Americans won’t do this work. Farmers in California have tried. They work for an hour or two and quit.”
There are legal immigrants who are accustomed to working for $2.50 a day in Mexico who want to come to the United States, he continued. They’ll work for $10, $12 or $15 an hour and send their money back to Mexico to support their families.
They’re not interested in staying here, Baccus said. Most don’t want to be U.S citizens. They’re willing to pay taxes. They want to be legal immigrants. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to work here.
“It’s a real shame we cannot design an immigration program to fix this situation,” Baccus said. “If we don’t get this job done and our U.S. Congress fails, we’re going to see all the fruit and vegetables grown south of the border.”
If that happens what could happen to food safety and the safeguards ensured by our highly regulated food industry?
How much control will this country have with the food produced in Mexico?
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.