Something very good happened in the U.S. Congress last week. And no, I am not talking about an infamous four-page memo. The something good that happened was, hopefully, the first crack in the wall of “holds” on nominees to fill important agricultural posts in the Trump administration.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., lifted the hold he had put on Greg Doud’s nomination for chief agricultural negotiator in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative after being assured that his concerns about changes to trade agreements regarding seasonal produce would be addressed.
Now, if Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, can just get whatever he needs to assure him that his oil and gas donors will be loyal even if ethanol gets some support, perhaps he can lift the hold he has on the nomination of Bill Northey to USDA undersecretary for farm production and conservation. Sen. Cruz has been holding up the vote for months to try to force concessions on the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Farmers and farm commodity groups have been concerned ever since the election about the Trump policy on trade deals and the impulsive decision, three days into his term, to pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
More recently, continuous talk about a similar pullout from the North American Free Trade Agreement has farmers across the country calling their elected representatives to express their concern about the damage such a departure could bring to the farm economy.
Since NAFTA went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994, it has brought strong, consistent benefits to American farmers, especially the commodity farmers of the Midwest and Great Plains. Since NAFTA, annual farm exports to Mexico have jumped nearly five-fold to about $18 billion. Mexico is the No. 3 market for U.S. agriculture, notably corn, soybeans and pork.
More than anything, there is reason to fear that the uncertainty of the trade deal will lead to stronger agreements between Mexico and Canada with America’s competitors, particularly Argentina and Brazil for Mexico and the E.U. for Canada.
Just as the remaining 11 partners in the TPP have moved forward to implement the agreement without the U.S., there is concern that new agreements in North America will simply strengthen the bonds with other suppliers.
It shouldn’t be particularly surprising to a “businessman” government that satisfied customers provide a brighter future. For more than 20 years, we have created very satisfied agricultural customers in Mexico and Canada. Now, there’s a danger that we could be putting those customers in a position that will lead them to look elsewhere for their suppliers — and they just might like the new guy better.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chair of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, says he has had a number of conservations with the president and his advisers to try to convince them of the value of NAFTA to American agriculture, and he hopes he has made progress.
“I agree that we should look at agreements from time to time and make changes if there are things that are mot working out so well. But we really need to avoid blowing up an entire deal when all me need are a few changes,” Roberts told the Kansas Commodity Classic in January.
It would be a good time for farmers to “sound off,” Roberts says, and make it clear to Congress and to the White House that America’s farmers are suffering in a severe economic downturn that is entering its third year, and that there is a need for more, not fewer, markets for the things they grow.
“We need to keep emphasizing the message that we need to sell not just the things we make, but the food we grow,” he says.
Ultimately, the answer to better prices is sales of grain. We need to move the wheat, corn, soybeans and sorghum out of the storage bunkers and into the mills, feedlots and crushing plants. So here’s my challenge: Create a form letter explaining how exports impact your farming operation. Once a day, call it up, change the addressee and hit “send.” Repeat as needed.