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Perdue Less Optimistic as NAFTA Faces Timing and Workload Challenges

As Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue met with farmers and ranchers in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska this week, trade was consistently a top concern. Dozens of producers expressed the importance of having access to foreign markets for their crops like beef, corn, and wheat.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall encouraged the administration to ensure that a NAFTA agreement is reached soon in an interview Tuesday.

“We’ve got a president that talks about doing a lot of things. We need to get across the finish line with some things like WOTUS, like trade, like NAFTA, like getting rid of rules and regulations,” Duvall said.

Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson was at Perdue's appearance in Alliance, Nebraska, on Thursday and expressed similar thoughts.

"It is important to Nebraska farmers and ranchers that we get NAFTA passed. Obviously there's some concerns that that's not moving forward as fast as we would like," Nelson said in an interview Friday.

Perdue acknowledged the producers' worries, confirming the importance of agricultural trade, but said he is less optimistic about completing NAFTA negotiations on time. With trade negotiations between the U.S. and China happening at the same time, the administration is facing a workload issue.

“We have a China delegation in town this week. Ambassador Lighthizer has to be tied up with them,” Perdue said after meeting with Colorado farmers on Wednesday. “There are so many things that we’re doing on trade right now. It’s quite a heavy lift.”

Later, after a tour of Leprino Foods in Greeley, Colorado, Perdue repeated his concerns about meeting NAFTA deadlines. “My optimism was dimmed based on the timing and the workload of negotiations we have going on. I’m still confident that we’ll get a deal at the end, but there may be some anxious moments in between.”

Although optimism about NAFTA getting completed on time has faded the administration has hesitated to make a backup plan. “We've hesitated to do that because we want to assume and expect that NAFTA gets renewed. And I think it will get renewed,” Perdue said.

He continued, “The problem is the timing and that we run into the regulations about trade promotion authority and the time to do that. I'm hopeful we can have an agreement in principle, even before that time runs out, that Congress can approve and that we can work out the details later. NAFTA obviously, not just for Colorado but for American agriculture, has been extremely important and we hope that it can be done. I'd love to be more optimistic, but it's really a timing and workload issue.”

China Negotiations

The secretary continued by saying he is hopeful there will be a positive outcome with the Chinese delegation.

“The president has had conversations with the President Xi. He has an issue with the ZTE operation, but the president has instructed his negotiators to expect a lot more ag sales, 20 to 50 billion dollars’ worth, to reduce that trade deficit,” said Perdue. “That would be a huge bonanza for American agriculture, and we're very hopeful that we can get some of that done.”

Thursday the USDA announced Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Ted McKinney will lead a trade mission to southern China later this month. From May 21-25 a diverse delegation of U.S. agribusiness leaders and state government officials will work to establish new business connections as they travel to Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

“Southern China is a major import hub and a growing market for U.S. agricultural exports, which already average $8 billion annually. Consumers in the region have an affinity for U.S. products, and demand for many consumer-oriented goods – from bakery ingredients to fresh fruits to alcoholic beverages – is on the rise,” said a USDA press statement.

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