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NAFTA USA arrow sign
HEADING FOR ROUND 7: The next round of NAFTA is scheduled for late February in Mexico.

Ag in holding pattern on NAFTA

Ongoing uncertainty continues following the conclusion of Round 6 of NAFTA talks and no mention of ag trade in the president’s State of the Union address.

The sixth round of North American Free Trade Agreement discussions concluded in Montreal Jan. 29, leaving those in agriculture wondering about future exports to the U.S.’ most important ag trading partners.

And President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Jan. 30 did nothing to ease those concerns. In his address, he referred to trade in general and that it needed to be fair, reciprocal and should protect American workers and intellectual property. The president has made repeated threats to pull the U.S. out of NAFTA if Canada and Mexico do not renegotiate.

Since NAFTA came into effect in 1994, U.S. agricultural exports to Canada and Mexico have tripled and quintupled, respectively. According to USDA data, product from one in every 10 acres on U.S. farms is exported directly north and south of here. Exports of feed grains in all forms to Canada and Mexico have increased by 300% over the last 24 marketing years.

Specific to Minnesota, both countries are key markets for ag products, with roughly 24% of the state’s ag exports going to Canada, and another 24% going to Mexico.

As Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, shared at the organization’s recent Leadership, Education, Advocacy and Promotion Conference in Welch, Minn., farmers do not want to get rid of NAFTA. They want to see it modernized.

“We need to improve it, not withdraw from it,” he said. Paap likened trade discussions to a good old-fashioned Minnesota potluck: Everyone is expected to bring something to the table.

No longer the heavyweight
Global trade is one of those issues that a lot of us don’t think about, until we are faced with a segment of our economy losing substantial markets. Given this point in time and our global reputation, it is concerning that some in positions of power in the U.S. believe they have weight to swing around in order to get what they want.

Given this point in time, the U.S. does not.

News reports after the last NAFTA round point out that Canada and Mexico aren’t waiting on the U.S. for trade negotiations. Both counties recently signed onto a new Trans-Pacific Partnership with nine other Pacific Rim nations. The U.S. withdrew from that agreement last year.

Another challenge with trade, specifically for agriculture, is that we have no one at the table representing us. We still are waiting for an appointment to assume the chair of chief ag negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Kansas native Greg Doud was nominated by Trump, but a hold was placed on his nomination last fall by an Arizona senator.

In our nation’s capital, Minnesota is in a unique position with representation. Paap noted that Minnesota has five members of Congress on committees that represent state farmers. We have three representatives on the U.S. House ag committee: Rep. Collin Peterson, who is the ag committee’s ranking member, along with Reps. Rick Nolan and Tim Walz; and on the U.S. Senate side, we have both Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

“Minnesota is at the table constantly reminding Congress about agriculture,” he said. “Yet they need to continually here from their constituents.”

Paap then shared something a congressman once told him.

“He said, ‘If I get five calls from constituents, I want to know about the issue. If I get 12 calls, I want to know now!’” Paap said, adding, “I beg you — contact your legislators.”

Uneasy uncertainty
A new organization called Farmers for Free Trade, a bipartisan effort to restore support for ag trade, noted in a press release that uncertainty in NAFTA negotiations is creating uncertainty for American farmers.

“As we head into planting season, farmers need the confidence that exports to America’s two most important agricultural export markets will remain viable,” said Brian Kuehl, the organization’s executive director. He also noted that the potential for NAFTA withdrawal into 2019 is a major concern.

“It’s time to remove the cloud of withdrawal so that farmers and ranchers have the certainty they deserve while NAFTA is being modernized,” he said.

Bluntly, Paap put it another way:

“If we don’t have trade with Canada and Mexico, which 48% of us [in Minnesota] need not farm?” he asked.

Stay tuned. The seventh round of NAFTA negotiations is planned for Feb. 26 to March 6 in Mexico City.

And in the meantime, contact your U.S. senator AND House representative.


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