U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk raised hopes for a resolution of the dispute over Mexican truck access in the U.S. in talks with leaders in Mexico the week of Feb. 8.

“We have been able to work with Congress and Obama is very pleased that the language in the 2009 appropriations bill — that essentially cut off the funding for the demonstration safety program — was not included in the 2010 appropriations bill,” Kirk told Reuters in an interview published Feb. 8.

Organized labor and consumer groups prodded Congress to remove funding in March 2009 for a pilot program allowing a limited number of Mexican trucks into the U.S. Now that prohibition is no longer in place, Kirk said the administration now has a “green light” to engage Congress about the issue.

Reacting to the elimination of the trucking program, Mexico imposed duties ranging from 10% to 45% on more than 90 products. Fresh produce items hit by the retaliatory tariff include lettuce, strawberries, pears, apricots, dates and onions.

One produce industry leader said Kirk’s remarks were encouraging — but the final result is important.

“I think the real question is will something actually happen,” said Mark Powers, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash. “I want to be optimistic and yet we’ve heard favorable comments in the past but they have never resulted in concrete steps.”

Powers said the Department of Transportation plays a key role in resolving the issue.

“We need to hear something from the Department of Transportation saying that its staff has tabled a proposal to Mexico and is moving forward aggressively to implement a pilot program,” he said. “That’s what needs to happen.”

Until that happens, growers and exporters of pears, grapes and many other commodities will suffer losses from the nearly year-old retaliatory tariffs put in place by Mexico.

“This is real money that’s going out of the growers pockets,” Powers said.

The council estimates Northwest pears growers have lost more than $11 million in sales to Mexico because of the tariff.