Imports – goods produced in other countries but sold “here” (in this case that’s the U.S.). They come up in the news a lot – are they destroying jobs? Why do we allow them? Who benefits?
Today, let’s start by imagining your trip to the grocery store. You walk into the fruit and vegetable section. There near the front sits a case of blueberries. 2 pints for $5.
I remember a time when the price of blueberries really varied. Sometimes they were like $5 for a not so large box. Now, however, it seems you can always get a deal! Awesome! But, why is that?
Well a few things have been occurring in the blueberry market over the past ten to twenty years. We are going to talk about both the demand and supply side. This is a long post, so bear with me.
Demand for Blueberries
First – an increase in demand for blueberries. Google “benefits of blueberries” and you’ll get a long list of articles discussing their nutrients, antioxidants, etc., etc. Throw them in your smoothie, toss them in a salad, eat them by the handful, or – best of all – use them for some blueberry muffins (recipe at the end)! There are never enough blueberries! In 2019 the average consumption of blueberries per person was about six times what it was in 2000! (0.33 pounds/person to 2 pounds/person). (Kramer, Simnitt, and Calvin 2020, p.37)
Greater demand for something should lead to higher prices. If not, there would be a constant shortage of blueberries and empty cases at the grocery store.
However, we have seen a DECREASE in the price of blueberries. Prices per “flat” in 2010 were between $17 and $25, while in 2019 they were between $11 and $13 in both the Fall and Spring (Kramer, Simnitt, and Calvin 2020, p.41)
If demand has increased but the price has decreased, then there must be an increase in supply. That supply is coming from BOTH an increase in domestic production and an increase in imports.
Let’s first talk about the domestic supply of blueberries. The first commercial crop of “high-bush” blueberries was in New Jersey in 1916. Yes, New Jersey, who knew? In fact, the state berry of New Jersey is the blueberry. (Blueberry Council)
Different types of these high-bush blueberries are grown throughout the U.S., not just areas with the same climate. In 2017, the top of the list was Washington, Georgia (who, by the way, is NOT the leading peach producer), Michigan, Oregon, New Jersey, California, North Carolina, and Florida. (World Atlas)
As an aside, you may be surprised that Maine is not on this list. This discussion is about “high-bush” blueberries, while Maine blueberries are “low-bush.” Maine is the largest producer of low-bush blueberries. The best pie I’ve ever had was made with Maine blueberries. I’d love to get my hands on some. (Visit Maine)
Blueberry production in these states has risen dramatically in the last 10 years. Between 2010 and 2019, blueberry production increased over 40%. Additionally, while blueberry production was mainly concentrated in May, June, and July, as of 2019 it had spread out from April to September. (Kramer, Simnitt, and Calvin 2020, p.38)
Florida, Georgia, and California produce some blueberries as early as April, but most blueberries produced in April are from Florida (this is important for later). Michigan, Oregon, and Washington produce blueberries as late as September. The peak blueberry producing month is, by far, June. Very few are produced in the late Fall through winter months. (For a very pretty graph of this, go to page 38 of Kramer, Simnitt, and Calvin 2020 or or directly to this USDA link. Finding the data was not as clean as I would have liked, otherwise I would have made one myself).
So, if we have fresh blueberries at all times, but they are only produced in some months of the year where do we get them? We import them!
In the graph below, we can see imports of blueberries into the U.S. each year from 2017 to 2019.
Figure Source: USDA Data: https://data.ers.usda.gov/reports.aspx?programArea=fruit&top=5&HardCopy=True&RowsPerPage=25&groupName=Noncitrus&commodityName=Blueberries&ID=17851#P389758875201448d90b5e43c865c3b60_3_1273
It is clear from the graph that we import much fewer blueberries during those months when we are producing them in the U.S. Recall that June is the month with the highest blueberry production. It is also the month with the fewest imports.
Canada is the second highest blueberry producing country (with the U.S. being the highest), and the U.S. imports blueberries from Canada mainly in July and August. (Atlas Big)
Chili, Peru, Mexico, and, to a lesser extent, Argentina also produce blueberries that are sold in the U.S. (USDA Report) Ten years ago, imports from Mexico and Peru were mainly non-existent, but in the last few years, there has been a dramatic increase in imports from these two countries.
The majority of imports are during the late fall and winter months (September to March); however, Mexican imports overlap with peak Florida production in April. (Figure 3 on p.40 and Figure 4 on p.41 from Kramer, Simnitt, and Calvin 2020). The figure above shows that April imports have been increasing, even in the last few years.
So, let’s review:
1. People in the U.S. like blueberries.
2. The U.S. produces a lot of blueberries – mainly during the summer months.
3. The U.S. also imports a lot of blueberries. Most imports are during the non-summer months, although there is overlap in production with the U.S., mainly from Mexico and Canada.
Ok… here comes the juicy stuff.
Do “we” like imports?
Last September (2020), United States Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer initiated a request to the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) to investigate whether blueberry imports were hurting domestic blueberry growers. While legal, it is very unusual for the USTR to initiate a review to the ITC.
Why did they initiate this request? Well, it was probably mostly for political reasons, but the argument is that some blueberry farmers feel that they are being hurt by the imports from other countries. (USTR report)
From the examples given in the report, Mexico is a big target for the complaints as the U.S. imports blueberries from Mexico in April and May (and other months), but those are months when Florida is producing blueberries. Additionally, Mexican imports have been increasing in the last few years. The U.S. mainly imports from Canada during July and August – peak seasons for blueberries in the North West. The rest of the months, the US is not producing blueberries anyway, so they are not affected by the freshly imported berries.
Let’s get back to the question of this post: “Are Imports Bad?”
No one will likely dispute that blueberries imported during the winter season are great! We (people buying blueberries) get to enjoy them all year long. I don’t have to buy frozen blueberries in the winter for my pies or be devoid of a good salad with fresh blueberries in them. A USDA report estimated in 2015 that imported blueberries during the off-season had brought $377 million of value to consumers (Arnade & Kuchler 2015)
The foreign producers are also going to be fans. They have a huge market to sell blueberries!
However, what about during those months when US production overlaps with imports from Mexico and Canada?
Well, then it depends on who you ask.
If you ask me – a consumer of blueberries – I love imports of blueberries during the Spring and late summer! Imports keep the price of blueberries down. If we stopped Mexican imports during April then Florida producers would have an essential monopoly on blueberries during those months – and there would be fewer blueberries in the market than any other month in the year (to figure this out, I looked at this graph and looked at the total production of US blueberries if we didn’t allow US imports just during March and April (Kramer, 2020).
If you ask the Florida blueberry producers, however, they would love to have a monopoly on blueberry production! Why? They get to sell blueberries at higher prices!