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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