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With NAFTA at Crucial Point, U.S. Farm Leaders Speak Up for Trade Pacts

U.S. farm leaders turned up the volume in the debate over the new NAFTA, worried that the success story of food and ag exports isn’t being heard among the clamor for tougher U.S. trade rules. “We have to be a player in the trade arena so we can move our product out of the country and feed the world,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the largest U.S. farm group, during a teleconference on the importance of safeguarding market access in the NAFTA negotiations, now in the fourth of seven scheduled rounds of talks.

“We want to make certain agriculture is never thrown under the bus,” said Sara Lilygren, of the recently formed Farmers for Free Trade. Former Senators Max Baucus, who also served as U.S. ambassador to China, and Richard Lugar, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations and Agriculture committees, are cochairs of the group. Lilygren and Duvall said the new group will fan grassroots support for trade. “We need all the other organizations … to talk about how important ag trade is to our community,” said Duvall.

Rural America, and particularly farmers, voted for President Trump in landslide proportions last November. Farmers decided that Trump’s pledges of regulatory relief, tax reform, and support for ethanol outweighed his threats to withdraw from NAFTA and put high tariffs on Chinese-made goods. China, Canada, and Mexico are the three largest customers for U.S. farm exports. Trump said in an interview with Forbes, published on Tuesday, “I happen to think that NAFTA will have to be terminated if we’re going to make it good. Otherwise, I believe you can’t negotiate a good deal.”

Under NAFTA, U.S. farm exports enter Canada and Mexico duty-free. “We want to do no harm,” said Duvall, using a common line about the farm sector’s goals for NAFTA, meaning preservation of unhindered access. Farm groups have ideas of where to “modernize” aspects of NAFTA, such as forcing Canada to allow more dairy imports. The U.S. is the world’s largest farm exporter. The sales generate 20% of farm income. The White House speaks often of U.S. manufacturers, creation of factory jobs, and elimination of trade deficits when discussing NAFTA. In Rust Belt cities, skepticism of NAFTA and other trade pacts is widespread. Some analysts say this week’s NATFA round, expected to focus on ag trade for the first time, may be pivotal in determining if a new agreement is possible.

“These antitrade messages are just flat-out wrong,” said Baucus. “We need trade.” Lugar said, “My own judgment is members of Congress are not hearing as much as they should from farmers” about the benefits of trade agreements.

Meanwhile, two wheat groups urged the administration “to pivot … to negotiating new deals, as repeatedly promised by President Trump as a candidate and since taking office.” China and the EU are actively seeking favorable trade deals, potentially at the expense of U.S. ag exports, said the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and U.S. Wheat Associates, which promotes wheat exports.

“It’s time to get past plowing the same fields [of existing agreements] and start opening ground in new markets,” said Chandler Goule, chief executive of NAWG. When Trump nixed the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, “we were promised a series of bilateral trade agreements in its place.” The head of U.S. Wheat said there have been no new trade agreements for a decade “and zero additional market access for wheat farmers.”

FERN’s Ag Insider. Produced by FERN
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