(Jan. 9) Recent trade projections from the U.S. Department of Agriculture point to an ever-widening trade deficit in horticultural items over the next 10 years.

Specifically, the USDA’s Economic Research Service has estimated that U.S. imports of horticultural products — largely fruit and vegetables, but also products like wine and nuts —will increase at a 3.6% annual rate over the next 10 years.

In contrast, U.S. exports of horticultural products will grow at a 2.6% annual clip in the next decade, according to ERS projections.

The $11 billion horticultural products trade deficit in 2004 will widen to $16 billion by 2014, the USDA projects.

We applaud the opportunities that international marketers are finding in the U.S. market. They are helping to fuel the growth of retail sales of fruits and vegetables and boosting consumption among all Americans.

However, the disparity in projected growth rates between imports and exports points to a need for more aggressive investment by the federal government in the horticultural industry.

One type of investment needed to improve the competitiveness of the fresh produce industry includes greater commitment by the U.S government to help exporters overcome phytosanitary barriers in markets like Japan and Australia.

What’s more, the U.S. must assist growers in dealing with the loss of methyl bromide and other pest management tools because of regulations.

Research on production and post-harvest technology is also much needed.

U.S. fresh produce growers already face disadvantages because of the wages they pay. Heavy-handed enforcement of immigration law may make things worse.

U.S. immigration policy must also be much more attuned to the sustainability of U.S. fruit and vegetable growers in the face of greater year-round imports.

The 10-year projections clearly show that the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry will face greater competition within the country. At the same time, export growth won’t be as strong as the surge in imports.

Whether through block grants to states or other methods, lawmakers must recognize and account for this reality. The 2007 farm bill will be a key test of their commitment to the industry.