One of the most distinguishable features about Highlands County is its strong agricultural market, especially in the citrus business. There are countless locally owned businesses that are dedicated to the growth and production of citrus produce, which helps contribute to Florida’s reputation as the leading producer in the nation and arguably the world. However, the ever growing presence of produce that is imported from southern nations has begun to pose a real problem to our local farmers.

Growers from southern nations like Mexico and Brazil lack the same amount of labor regulations and safety inspections as those that our local farmers do. As a result, the cost of production and effectively the sale price of these fruits is massively lower than fruit grown in the United States.

Our local farmers have to make a minimal profit just to be able to somewhat compete, not even to match the prices of foreign growers. In a sense, they are being punished just for being from the United States and following the regulations.

The foreign fruits are not inspected to the same degree and have a higher chance of bringing invasive bacteria. For these growers, it seemed like the business is just going to get even less profitable.

In the recent election, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage in Florida to $15 an hour over the course of five years. Growers will have to comply with these wages, further cutting their profit margin, and making it near impossible to ever reach prices as low as the produce from Mexico and Brazil.

Unfortunately, this issue has never seemed to have been solved by those in every level of government. Tariffs on these imports have seemed to never be sufficient to prevent the influx of foreign produce. We continue to see fruit labeled as “Produce of Mexico” in our grocery stores and at a cheaper price than American growers. Elected officials seem to support the idea of importation tariffs on these fruits, but the issue seems to be swept under the rug. The issue was continuously overlooked in trade agreements, in Republican and Democratic administrations.

This is an issue that can no longer be overlooked, especially after the tough economic year that our country finished facing. Each day we spend overlooking the issue is another day that money leaves the pockets of American farmers and goes into foreign growers.

For me, personally, I only began to notice through awareness posts on Facebook. I even began to take notice of the labels on fruit at the grocery store, which proved that the majority of produce was not even grown in the country.

People have to begin pressuring their local officials, whether it is on the state or federal level. Our local representatives and our senators have the power to make these changes, but they have to feel some sort of pressure to do so. Even while these officials stall on the issue, we have to continue to support our local farmers and give them a fighting chance in the industry that they care so much for. The issue of foreign growers may only slightly affect us now, but it will be too late to take action when our local growers are shutting down and leading to the destruction of thousands of jobs.

Miguel Arceo is a student athlete at Sebring High School.