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Ag Trade Is Vital, Says Farm Bureau Leader a Day Before Trump Speech
Farmers are among President Trump’s staunchest supporters, and they have a response to his threats to scrap NAFTA and rewrite other trade agreements: “Without those global markets, our already-depressed farm economy would go down even more,” said Zippy Duvall, leader of the largest U.S. farm group. “Trade should not be a dirty word,” Duvall told the estimated 7,000 attendees at American Farm Bureau Federation convention, where Trump is scheduled to speak this afternoon.
“We sell about half of what we produce to foreign markets around the world. If we lose those markets, where is that agricultural production going to go? Ag trade is an American success story” said Duvall in a speech on Sunday to open the convention in Nashville. Farmers and ranchers were given souvenir buttons saying, “I support NAFTA,” “I’m a farmer for free trade,” and “I support free trade.”
Farm exports generate about 20% of U.S. farm income. A long commodity boom collapsed in 2013 and put farm income on a steep decline that may have leveled off in 2017. Trump has threatened action against China, Canada, and Mexico, the top three markets, in that order, for U.S. farm exports.
Agricultural trade among the NAFTA nations quadrupled since the pact took effect in 1994, said Canadian Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay during a speech at the convention. “We must continue to ensure that North America remains a major building block in our shared economic prosperity. It we grow our trade relationship, we will grow our economies together.”
Rural America was pivotal to Trump’s election, and in a region where the president rolled up landslide margins, polls indicated farmers backed him 3-to-1. They were attracted to his promises of regulatory relief, tax reform, and support for ethanol, but were worried by his threats to tear up trade agreements.
“We have had a seat at the table with the Trump administration,” Duvall said, and he celebrated Trump’s steps to quash the so-called Waters of the United States rule that delineated the upstream reach of clean water laws, and his enactment of tax cuts. On the other hand, he said, “even some within agriculture don’t understand what’s at stake if we lose our trade agreements.”
Duvall urged Congress to pass a guest worker bill, sponsored by House Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte, to remedy a farm labor shortage. House Democrats say the Goodlatte bill is too extreme. It would create a year-round H-2C visa that for the first time would be open to meatpackers, dairies, and the timber industry. It would reduce the minimum pay rate for guest workers and relieve employers of the obligation to pay for transportation and housing of guest workers, who would have the freedom to change jobs. Undocumented workers already in the U.S. legal status by joining the H-2C program but would be required to return to their home countries. An estimated half of U.S. farmworkers, 1 million people or more, are believed to be undocumented.
“We would love to just deal with the agricultural labor force,” said Duvall at a news conference. “I don’t think the country is going to let us go there without talking about immigration reform.”
Trump will be the first president to speak at a Farm Bureau convention since President George H.W. Bush in 1992.