Gov. Asa Hutchinson met with Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and other lawmakers about a month ago to ensure the U.S. will remain in the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from the agreement, but Hutchinson said it would be a mistake.
The governor spoke Monday (Feb. 19) at the Arkansas Rice annual meeting held on the Arkansas State University campus in Jonesboro.
“The United States should not pull out of NAFTA,” Hutchinson said. “I have growing confidence this administration understands we can’t pull out of NAFTA.”
Arkansas grows about half of the nation’s rice and it’s a $6 billion industry in the state, he said. It employs about 25,000 workers in the Natural State. There are $250 million in rice sales to Canada and Mexico each year, two of the state’s top international trade partners.
While Hutchinson thinks NAFTA will remain, other international markets seem less likely to open. The governor, along with U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, have pushed hard for an opening of markets in Cuba. At present, Cubans can buy American agricultural products with cash, but cannot with credit. Cuba’s two main agricultural imports are rice and poultry.
The island nation gets its rice mainly from countries such as Vietnam, Brazil, and others. Cubans are interested in Arkansas rice, he said. The country could become a prime market for Arkansas rice farmers, but there are two obstacles, Hutchinson said.
The first is Trump, he said. The president has said relations with Cuba are a low priority for the administration at this point. The second problem is the mysterious illness that impacted a number of U.S. diplomats and others in Havana last year. Investigators have not definitively determined who or what caused several Americans to suffer from concussion-like symptoms. There has been speculation that they were targeted by some type of sonic weapon or device.
“I’m not optimistic this year,” he said.
China’s population consumes as much rice in 13 days as Arkansas produces in a year. Agriculture trade barriers between the U.S. and China were lessened last year, but Hutchinson thinks it’s still going to be tough for Arkansas rice to be served more often on Chinese dinner tables.
Agricultural products such as rice will have to undergo “vital sanitation protocols” and the governor is afraid bureaucrats will “slow walk” these regulations because trade issues between the countries have grown in recent months. Hutchinson has made three trips to China since he took office.
“It’s essential we have access to that market,” Hutchinson said.
He praised Trump for his rollback of Environmental Protection Agency regulations that impact farmers. These burdensome regulations have made it harder for farmers to do their jobs, he said. Farmers have to overcome tremendous obstacles, and the sector is the bedrock of Arkansas’s economy, he said.
“Anybody who grows up on a farm knows the risk you take,” he said.