As tomato growers in Florida and some other states fight a 16-year-old agreement that they contend allows farmers in Mexico to export tomatoes at a price below their costs, the Mexican farmers are finding allies in the United States.
The trade dispute highlights the network of interlocking interests between the countries under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trade across the Mexican border is now worth more than $1 billion a day.
U.S. producers of corn, soybeans, apples, pork and chicken have increased sales to Mexico greatly over the years as trade barriers have been dismantled.
At the same time, Mexico has become a fast-growing supplier of produce to U.S. supermarkets and restaurants. Tomatoes lead the list: Exports have doubled and their value has tripled since the mid-1990s, to almost $2 billion.
That has been aided by a complex arrangement dating from 1996 that established a minimum price at which Mexican tomatoes are permitted to enter the U.S. market. Florida farmers are leading a campaign to persuade the Commerce Department to scrap the accord, and they won a victory in September when the department announced a preliminary decision to end it, with a final ruling to come in the spring. But other U.S. interests are lining up in support of continuing the agreement.
For example in Arizona, Richard Fimbres, a member of the Tucson City Council who is usually more concerned with improving city streets than with the minutiae of international trade law, recently sponsored a resolution asking the Commerce Department to continue the agreement.
Then he wrote to President Barack Obama last month, declaring that "we can't turn our back on the global economy now." More than 370 businesses and trade groups from small family-run importers on the Mexico border to Wal-Mart Stores have written or signed letters to the Commerce Department in favor of continuing the deal.
While Florida tomato growers contend the accord is hurting their business, the broader trade dynamics are generating business for other companies in the United States.
"A lot of what is produced and harvested in Mexico is put in the ground with U.S. money and intended for U.S. markets," said John McClung, the president and chief executive of the Texas International Produce Association. "The garden simply happens to be across the river."