Two events occurred this past week that should send up a warning flag for American agriculture. While on the surface they may seem unrelated, the response to both needs to be the same. The first is a growing frustration with the NAFTA talks, and the second is the looming battle over the Farm Bill.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue went public with criticism on the way the NAFTA talks are going. In a speech in Washington, Perdue said he was “disappointed” with the pace of the trade negotiations. Senators from pro-Trump states are also turning up the heat on the White House. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairmen Pat Roberts said he used a private White House meeting with Trump to plug in agriculture’s cause in NAFTA and beyond. As the negotiations resume this week, there may be a new face at the table, who will have as his only job representing the interests of American farmers.
Ted McKinney was confirmed last week at the Undersecretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Affairs. McKinney told me it is his intention to be at the table and to “lead” the discussion on agriculture. That discussion will not be easy or cordial. Mexico has, in the past, shown they are willing to use agriculture trade as a weapon to gain concessions in other areas. Canada’s dairy policy is a major sticking point and is a key issue the U.S. wants resolved. So far, the Canadians have been intransigent on the issue. McKinney will have his work cut out for him, and he will need strong backing from the rest of the administration so farmers do not get thrown under the bus.
Throwing farmers under the bus is just what a motley group of radicals in Washington want to do. A group covering all points on the political spectrum is getting together to discuss ways to attack the upcoming Farm Bill when the development process begins in Congress. Roughly two-dozen different groups sent representatives to Washington last week to hear a presentation from an economist and then discuss different messages they can take to Congress regarding changes they want in U.S. farm policy. These organizations are typically very different when it comes to ag policy issues. They range from the Heritage Foundation and Citizens Against Government Waste on the (conservative) right to the Organic Consumers Association and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group on the (liberal) left.
The main issue is money. The groups on the right want to cut government spending on agriculture, something they see as a subsidy. On the left, they want funds moved from farm programs to social programs. For both sides, cutting funding for crop insurance, conservation, and the farm safety net are all top priorities. While agriculture has political clout, it is still going to be difficult to fend off these attacks. The strong voice needed in this fight is you. Farmers, not just farm groups, need to make their voices heard by those they elect.
NAFTA and the Farm Bill represent the two biggest farm policy issues facing us today. If we can negotiate an ag-friendly trade deal and maintain funding for current farm programs, we will have the kind of support needed to keep the current downturn in the farm economy from getting worse. But this is not going to happen by itself, it will require loud voices in the right place at the right time. Are you ready to get loud?
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