Outside Influences

Farmers’ Trade Fears Grow

Agriculture groups are increasingly worried that the Trump administration’s withdrawal from trade deals will hurt their exports.

AP Photo/Seth Perlman
Jerry Hagstrom
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Jerry Hagstrom
Feb. 28, 2017, 8 p.m.

DANA POINT, Cal­if.—Farm­ers, ranch­ers, and oth­er rur­al Amer­ic­ans may still be telling poll­sters that they ap­prove of Pres­id­ent Trump’s per­form­ance in of­fice. But ag­ri­cul­tur­al lead­ers and farm-state politi­cians are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly alarmed about Trump’s state­ments and plans that may af­fect ag­ri­cul­tur­al ex­ports to Mex­ico, China, Canada, and oth­er parts of the world.

Those con­cerns were evid­ent here this week when the In­ter­na­tion­al Dairy Foods As­so­ci­ation and the Sweeten­er Users As­so­ci­ation chose Darci Vet­ter, the U.S. chief ag­ri­cul­tur­al trade ne­go­ti­at­or in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, as the key­note speak­er at their an­nu­al In­ter­na­tion­al Sweeten­er Col­loqui­um.

Vet­ter told the sug­ar traders and candy and dairy ex­ec­ut­ives here that Trump’s de­cision to with­draw from the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship is a “loss for the glob­al trad­ing sys­tem” that has left most of ag­ri­cul­ture “out in the cold.” TPP, she noted, would not only have re­duced tar­iffs on a range of farm products in the 12 par­ti­cip­at­ing coun­tries, but would have set up rules on bi­o­tech­no­logy and the or­gan­ic sec­tor.

TPP also con­tained a pro­vi­sion to make state-owned en­ter­prises fol­low mar­ket rules in in­ter­na­tion­al busi­ness, and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion hoped that China, which has many state en­ter­prises, would even­tu­ally join TPP and fol­low the rules.

“In some years [the Chinese are] our No. 1 mar­ket, but they are a very fickle mar­ket,” Vet­ter said.

What the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will do re­gard­ing the North Amer­ic­an Free Trade Agree­ment with Mex­ico and Canada is still un­clear, she said, be­cause vari­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have said the United States is “go­ing to with­draw, rene­go­ti­ate it, mod­ern­ize it, tweak it a lot.”

Vet­ter said the 20-year-old NAF­TA agree­ment could use mod­ern­iz­a­tion but warned that there are many dangers for U.S. ag­ri­cul­ture, which has made massive sales of corn and oth­er products to Mex­ico in re­cent years. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion may wish to fo­cus on man­u­fac­tur­ing, she noted, but ques­tioned, “Could we con­tain that dis­cus­sion?” Dur­ing past trade dis­putes, Mex­ico and Canada have tar­geted U.S. farm products for re­tali­at­ory tar­iffs, she ad­ded.

Vet­ter told the in­dustry of­fi­cials that they must make their con­cerns known to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion be­cause “frankly, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has broad lat­it­ude” to act on trade without con­gres­sion­al ac­tion. With­draw­ing from NAF­TA would re­quire fol­low­ing the rules in that agree­ment, but any ser­i­ous pro­pos­al would make in­dustry think twice about fu­ture busi­ness plans in­volving the cross-bor­der sup­ply chains that have be­come so im­port­ant in re­cent years, she said.

Rick Pasco, the pres­id­ent of the Sweeten­er Users, said that the group had joined 140 oth­er farm groups to send a let­ter to the White House about their con­cerns. But the is­sue of the mo­ment is that there are so few ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials in place and it is un­clear who is really go­ing to take the lead on trade ne­go­ti­ations.

Vet­ter’s speech here fol­lowed Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­man Pat Roberts’s state­ment in Man­hat­tan, Kan­sas, last week that de­creased trade “is the biggest danger to the farm in­dustry.

“Trade is on the minds of every farm­er, every ranch­er and, I as­sure you, it is on the mind of Sen­at­or Stabenow and my­self,” Roberts told a Kan­sas re­port­er, re­fer­ring to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber, who ac­com­pan­ied him home for the first farm-bill hear­ing.

Not­ing that Trump has said he wants to con­cen­trate on bi­lat­er­al agree­ments, Roberts said he had asked the White House to “an­nounce—with­in weeks, months if pos­sible—the coun­tries we are work­ing with” so that mem­bers of his com­mit­tee can be of help.

Roberts said that with so much un­cer­tainty about Mex­ico, it is “no secret” that Mex­ico may buy its ag­ri­cul­tur­al im­ports from coun­tries oth­er than the United States.

At the Re­new­able Fuels As­so­ci­ation meet­ing in San Diego last week, Na­tion­al Corn Grow­ers As­so­ci­ation CEO Chris Novak said, “The farm pro­gram will help with some oth­er is­sues, but the real prom­ise that our farm­ers see is growth in de­mand, and we know that growth in de­mand will come from [ex­ports].”

Novak ad­ded, “We know that Pres­id­ent Trump is com­mit­ted to im­prov­ing trade,” but he said his “frus­tra­tion” is that Trump is so op­posed to mul­ti­lat­er­al agree­ments that have been good for Amer­ic­an ag­ri­cul­ture.

All this con­cern is amp­li­fied by the White House’s slow­ness in send­ing the Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee the re­quired doc­u­ments on Sonny Per­due, the former Geor­gia gov­ernor who is Trump’s nom­in­ee for Ag­ri­cul­ture sec­ret­ary, so that a con­firm­a­tion hear­ing can be held.

Farm lead­ers be­lieve that Per­due could help Trump avoid mis­takes that could lead to trade wars.

Polls show two-thirds of rur­al Amer­ic­ans voted for Trump. Amer­ic­an Farm Bur­eau Fed­er­a­tion Pres­id­ent Zippy Duvall said last week at the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment’s Out­look For­um, “I don’t know the man in the White House very well, but he ap­pears strong and cour­ageous.

“But I do know Sonny Per­due, and he is strong and cour­ageous, and I ask every­one to be strong and cour­ageous … to make every­one great again.”

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