AEDC director talks China, rice; cautious about NAFTA negotiations

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 515 views 

Arkansas Economic Development Commission Executive Director Mike Preston said Gov. Asa Hutchinson and President Donald Trump’s administration deserve credit for the breakthrough with the reopening of U.S.-China rice and beef trade. The AEDC chief also said it’s time to review NAFTA, but says it has added caution to economic recruiting.

Appearing on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics, Preston said Hutchinson’s multiple trips to China have not only paid dividends for Arkansas manufacturing and timber, but also for agriculture.

“Both trips that we made to China, we made it part of that mission to make sure that we got that message across and we took it all the way up to the Ministry of Agriculture to make sure they understand about the need to, opening the market up to the U.S. and really specifically Arkansas,” he said.

Arkansas is the top rice producing state in the U.S. and is home to Stuttgart-based Riceland Foods, one of the biggest rice marketers in America. Springdale-based Tyson Foods is one of the biggest beef producers in the world and has operations in China.

“It didn’t hurt that the governor was there making the case in person for Arkansas,” Preston said of the Chinese trade trips. “Some credit has to be given to the Trump administration and the pressure that they’ve put and the relationship that they’ve built with China. I think he [Trump] and President Xi had good meetings when they were there in Mar-a-Lago.”

Preston said a future trip to China and the Far East is planned in the coming months. He and the governor will travel abroad to recruit more potential manufacturers and try to open additional agricultural markets, such as poultry. During Preston’s tenure, Arkansas has landed three Chinese-based manufacturing prospects to the state – one in Little Rock, one in Forrest City and one near Arkadelphia.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Hutchinson signed a letter advocating an “open investment” policy for the state on the heels of his return from a trade trip to Europe. The governor said several European countries expressed concerns about President Trump’s trade rhetoric and he wanted to assure partners that Arkansas remains open to foreign investment, which accounts for about 46,000 workers statewide.

Trump has served notice that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) should be reworked. The two-decades old trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico could use an update, says Preston.

“I think it’s time to, as they say, update NAFTA. There’s a lot of proponents on both sides of this thing. I think what we’re seeing is people, as I said, sitting it out until they see what happens on NAFTA. That’s maybe going to slow down some of the project load on companies who are looking between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and what is that going to mean? Certainly it needs to be modernized. I think there’s components of it that, you know, when it was first written, wasn’t factoring in e-commerce and other things like that. We need to modernize it, but make sure that we’re not hurting trade here in Arkansas,” said Preston.

Watch his full interview below.