U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said Friday that he is confident that the U.S., Canada and Mexico will come to a resolution on a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) soon, but stressed that President Donald Trump is focused on a deal that will put “America first.”
Perdue, with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson at his side, made his comments to reporters at the Governor Mansion after meeting with farming and agriculture officials from across the state as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “listening tour” to help the Trump administration craft new farming rules and regulations, including a new farm bill.
Concerning NAFTA, Perdue said the message he will take back to President Trump from Hutchinson and Arkansas’ agriculture community is the same message he has pushed since he became the USDA chief in March.
“It is the same message that we have been singing – the fourth verse of ‘Just as I am.’” Perdue said jokingly. “And that is that NAFTA is very important to American agriculture and obviously to the mid-South here because we know the Mexico market takes a lot of rice, cotton, pork and other things. It is accurate that Canada and Mexico (are) between number one and two in exports for Arkansas farmers. The president is hearing that universally and I think he is taking that into consideration of what it means.”
The issue of NAFTA is looming ahead for the Trump administration as the fifth round of talks on the three-country trade agreement begins on Sunday in Montreal. The talks between the U.S., Canada and Mexico are expected to last over nine days as cabinet-level officials and negotiators are looking to strike after meeting for more than a year.
Although President Trump has repeatedly warned that he wants the U.S. to withdraw from NAFTA over the last year, Perdue seemed at peace that a workable agreement will be reached that the president will be pleased with. A timetable for a decision on changes to NAFTA, or the U.S.’s potential exit, has not been released by the Trump administration.
“The (president’s) obligation, obviously, covers the whole U.S. economy. And that is the balance part, when you look at it from his perspective … the balance of trade having gone up so much between the U.S. and Mexico,” Purdue said. “The (president) believes, as I do, that’s got to be right-sized and modernized.”
Gov. Hutchinson also said he was pleased with progress on NAFTA talks and other agriculture issues, such as conservation and the state’s regulatory burden, after he met with Purdue, the former governor of Georgia. Earlier this week in Rogers, Hutchinson spoke on NAFTA and its impact on the state’s economy at the World Trade Center Arkansas in Rogers.
That event was attended by the Arkansas business and agriculture community, including executives from Tyson Foods and Walmart, and leaders from the Arkansas Farm Bureau and Farmers for Free Trade. At that meeting, Hutchinson made clear that NAFTA was important to the Arkansas economy and must be ratified in order to maintain Arkansas’ position as a global leader in farming and agriculture.
“We are known as global leaders,” said Hutchinson. “We cannot retreat from that global presence in the marketplace without harming our workers and businesses in the state.”
ARKANSAS FARMING ROUNDTABLE
At the Governor’s Mansion event, Hutchinson and Purdue held a similar roundtable with industry leaders as a part of the USDA’s efforts to get input from farming officials across the U.S. on critical issues facing the nation’s farming economy, which has been in a downturn over the past five years.
The Arkansas panel peppered the Agriculture Secretary with dozens of questions on everything from conservation and farming technology to trade issues and key legislative initiatives that congressional lawmakers should include in the 2018 Farm Act.
Gov. Hutchinson has already submitted letters to the president encouraging favorable positioning of agriculture during efforts to rewrite trade deals, said Arkansas Farm Bureau President Randy Veach, who attended Friday’s meeting.
Veach expressed key Farm Bureau talking points to Purdue that much of Arkansas’ nearly $16 billion agriculture economy is generated through exports and different trade pacts, including NAFTA. According to that data, more than $1.8 billion in Arkansas agriculture exports went to Canada and Mexico in 2016. The countries are the Natural State’s two top trading partners, Veach told Purdue.
According to the Farm Bureau, since NAFTA began, trade with the two countries has grown by 700%. Arkansas’ NAFTA exports include $167 million in poultry and eggs, about $127 million in meat products, and $82 million in grain exports. Estimates show that more than 100,000 Arkansas jobs are supported by trade with NAFTA partners.
Arkansas exports more than $3.3 billion in agricultural products each year. Soybeans and soybean products ($1 billion), rice and processed foods ($768 million), broilers ($344 million) and forest and paper products ($312 million) are the primary agriculture-related exports. About 50,000 jobs in the timber, paper, and processed foods sectors in the state are reliant on foreign investment from those two countries.
“When it comes to trade and trade agreements, we always know that the number one issue is agriculture,” Veach told the USDA chief. “Most of the time that’s the last thing they talk about in those trade agreements – deciding on agriculture.”
Veach then added: “If we lose market share, that’s going to be a tremendous blow to agriculture not only in Arkansas, but to our nation.”
Following Veach’s back-and-forth with Perdue, the Agriculture Secretary heard from at least a dozen other farming and agriculture officials and trade groups, including the state Agriculture Council, the Poultry Federation and representatives from the rice, beef, pork, dairy, cotton and row crop industries.
Perdue told reporters later that he was surprised he didn’t receive many questions from the panel about the herbicide dicamba, the controversial weed-killer that is restricted from use by state farmers during the upcoming growing season.
The Arkansas Legislative Council voted Friday (Jan. 19) to invoke an Arkansas State Plant Board regulation to prohibit its use from April 16 through Oct. 31. The rule will be filed with the Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office and will be in effect 10 days after it is filed. This is the last step in the process, and now farmers know for certain it won’t be available this year, said Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward, who shared the head table with Perdue, Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
Perdue admitted there are strongly held beliefs on both sides of the dicamba controversy, but said he believes most would rather have a solution locally rather than from Washington, D.C.
“I think that is the appropriate place for it to be managed on a statewide basis as well as in industry and among farmers themselves,” he said.
Purdue, a veterinarian by trade, said he knows how important crop-protection chemicals can be, but said he also knows the harm they can do.
“We have to be better about how we do things, and I think when the industry demonstrates the ability to do that in a way that doesn’t do harm, then I think Arkansas will be willing to look at that in a way of relaxation,” he said.