Why American Produce Growers Need to Mechanize Crops and Educate Consumers Now

American consumption of fruits and vegetables has increased over the past generation, which is a wonderful thing. This increase has been driven by a growing population, but even more promising, by heightened consumer demand for fresh produce.

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Now the bad news: Over that time frame, especially during the past two decades, the U.S. has increasingly relied on imported produce to meet consumers’ demands, not the superb fruits farmed by American fruit growers.

Consider that nearly 43%, or 12.5 billion pounds, of the U.S. fresh fruit supply, excluding bananas, which have always been nearly all grown abroad, was imported in 2019. That’s more than twice the share of fresh fruit as in 2000, when only 20% was imported. Today, in addition to bananas, some fruits are now almost all completely imported. For instance, less than 1% of pineapples, 10% of avocados, and 30% of raspberries are grown in the U.S.

These numbers come from a study by the New American Economy, which bills itself as a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans.

The New American Economy analyzed data from the USDA and American Community Survey and concludes increased dependence on imported fruits and vegetables not only decreases American food security, but it also has an economic cost.

Of course, these problems aren’t limited to our fruit supply. More than 31% of the fresh vegetables consumed in the U.S. in 2019 were imported, or 16 billion pounds. This is 50% higher than the share of vegetables that were imported into the U.S. in 2000.

What’s alarming is that as vegetable and fruit imports increase, the amount of U.S. land dedicated to farming fruits and vegetables has shrunk. According to the USDA Farm Census, more than 7.5 million acres were used to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables, excluding potatoes, in 2002. By 2017, farmland used for fruit and vegetables declined by 6.7%. The biggest decrease was in the citrus industry, which saw a 17% drop in acres farmed, largely in Florida, where beleaguered growers have been dealing with the deadly citrus tree disease Huanglongbing (HLB).

The study suggests that the relatively high labor costs of farming fruits and vegetables is driving a lot of this change. For most U.S. farms, labor costs are equal to approximately 10% of total farm income. But vegetable production is more than two times higher, 23%, and for fruit farms the share of the labor cost is nearly three times higher, 28%.

On top of this, high labor costs have continued to rise and are expected to rise even more due to an aging crop production workforce and a decline in younger workers interested in working in fruit and vegetable harvesting. Consider the fact wages for crop workers have far outpaced even those for college graduates.

If these trends continue, growers of certain crops may really be at risk. Here in the West, I have witnessed the asparagus industry, for example, whittled down so much it’s almost unrecognizable from a generation ago.

What’s to be done? Mechanization needs to happen, as fast as practically possible, and to as many fruit-growing practices as possible. But other than working closely with promising technology companies, there’s not much more a grower can do to speed mechanization. Except for education, that is.

If you’re a smaller, direct market grower, you have it a little easier in educating consumers, because you often deal with them directly. Let them know how important it is to you and all American fruit growers that American consumers buy homegrown fruit. If you’re a larger grower, such direct consumer contact is not possible, but you can make it clear to the industry associations to which you belong that getting more Americans to put a premium on eating produce grown in the USA should be a priority.

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