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Rice, corn leaders stress importance of exports to agricultural sector

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Farm group leaders meet with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on a wide range of issues.

U.S. farm groups are continuing to meet with Trump administration officials to try to make sure they understand the importance of trade to farmers and other segments of the U.S. agricultural complex.

The latest involved USA Rice Federation officials and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in a wide-ranging discussion of trade along with flooding in the Mid-South, the 2018 farm bill, labor shortages in California, food aid and the importance of rice research programs.

Perdue, who founded a company that specializes in international trade after finishing his term as governor of Georgia, understands what exports mean to U.S. producers, but you can’t always be sure about other members of this administration who seem ready to sacrifice agricultural to support manufacturing.

“With 50 percent of our crop exported each year, and 20 percent of that going to Mexico, we can’t overstate the importance of the North American Free Trade Agreement,” USA Rice Chairman Brian King, a rice merchant from Marked Tree, Ark., told the secretary at the start of the meeting.

Keith Glover, chairman of USA Rice’s World Market Price Subcommittee, reminded Secretary Perdue about the lack of progress on signing the U.S.-China Phytosanitary Agreement for rice and the refusal of Iraq to purchase U.S. rice for the last year, despite a Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and the government of Iraq.

‘Don’t go backwards’

“The message we gave the president on NAFTA was clear, ‘don't go backwards,’” said Perdue, in response to King’s comments. “On China, we don't have any disagreements on the phytosanitary deal, it's just going to be a question of putting our names on the dotted lines.”

(Press reports indicate Perdue sat down with the president and a map and explained to him where many of the votes that ensured his election came from just before Trump was scheduled to sign an executive order withdrawing the U.S. from NAFTA.)

On the issue of Iraq Perdue offered that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, “with the full U.S. economy in his portfolio, has sunk his teeth into agriculture because he understands how much ag helps with our trade surplus.”

Paul T. Combs, a Missouri rice farmer, discussed food aid, saying “USDA food aid programs are quite important to the rice industry, and we believe food aid should be food, not cash, which can more easily be corrupted.”

Curtis Berry, a Mississippi rice farmer, stressed the importance of the rice industry's partnership with the Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) to promote U.S. rice around the world.

Farmers more than match dollars

“Those promotion programs are very important to the rice industry, and we match every dollar we receive from the government with more than seven dollars from industry, so you can see we value the programs and believe in them,” Berry said.

Sean Doherty, a California rice farmer, shared his concerns about labor shortages in California as a result of rhetoric coming out of the White House and also made the case for improved access to the Japanese market for U.S. rice.

Also on the domestic front, Arkansas rice farmer Dow Brantley thanked Secretary Perdue for his recent trip to Arkansas to survey flood damage and reminded him about difficulties with the “practical to replant” regulations.

Brantley also discussed rice priorities for the upcoming 2018 farm bill, including a safety net provision that works for rice, as the current Price Loss Coverage or PLC program does, and a closer look at current policies that do not work, including the Actively Engaged provision of USDA’s revised payment limit rules.

“Really important, I think, is to give farmers an opportunity to adjust to any rule changes in the new farm bill,” he said. “We didn't get that last time, and it hurt a lot of people.”

Rice and ducks

Texas rice farmer L.G. Raun talked about the exceptional conservation story the rice industry has to tell as the providers of so much habitat for waterfowl.

He praised the work of USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, stewards of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program of which the rice industry is a major beneficiary, and reminded the secretary of the unique relationship between USA Rice and Ducks Unlimited that works to preserve habitat and improve water quality.

Louisiana rice farmer Jackie Loewer also praised robust rice research programs that are helping the rice industry remain competitive. The Trump administration has proposed a 21 percent reduction in USDA’s 2018 budget, which would fall heavily on the department’s research activities.

“All the issues you heard about today are important, but we really have a three-legged stool of trade, safety net programs, and research on which we sit," said Loewer, who is also the chairman of the Louisiana Rice Research Board.

“This could not have been a better meeting,” said USA Rice President & CEO Betsy Ward. “It was apparent to all of us that Secretary Perdue is going to be a strong advocate for all of agriculture, but that he also understands the unique challenges confronting the rice industry and he is going to work with us, both domestically and internationally, to improve conditions for us.”

No. 1 customer for Nebraska

In another trade front development, the National Corn Growers Association hosted a meeting between Nebraska Gov. Pete Rickets, national and state grain industry leaders and Mexican officials to highlight the importance of Mexico to U.S. agriculture.

“Bilateral trade with Mexico has helped grow agriculture in our state over the years,” said Governor Ricketts. “Mexico is Nebraska's largest export market for corn, dairy, sugar, and sweeteners, and second largest market for soybeans, wheat, sorghum and distiller's grains. All of this combined accounts for thousands of Nebraska jobs.

“I’m encouraged by local and national discussions to expand trade, and am committed to helping grow our trade relationship with Mexico so we can continue to grow Nebraska.”

The Nebraska Corn Board, the U.S. Grains Council and the National Corn Growers Association are hosting a team of Mexican grain and industry officials in Nebraska for a town hall and industry meetings, ahead of the Trump Administration's plans to renegotiate NAFTA.

Following the meeting in Nebraska, the Mexican delegation was scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C., where they joined U.S. corn farmers for meetings with Congressional leaders to discuss the U.S.-Mexico trade relationship.

“Nebraska agriculture is at its best when we all work together, which includes our trading partners,” said Kelly Brunkhorst, executive director of the Nebraska Corn Board. “Mexico is currently Nebraska's largest export market for corn, which provides $287 million in added value to our state's economy.”

About 20 percent of U.S. corn and corn co-products are exported. Mexico is the largest market for U.S. corn. In 2016, U.S. corn exports to Mexico totaled 13.3 million metric tons (523.5 million bushels) of corn, valued at $2.5 billion. The U.S. also exported 1.9 million metric tons of distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS), a byproduct of ethanol.

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