US ag free trade campaign focuses on export opportunities

As a former U.S. ambassador to China, Max Baucus has seen firsthand the demand for agricultural products there. But will countries other than the United States be filling that demand?

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As the U.S. negotiates trade deals under a new presidential administration, the Farmers for Free Trade campaign has been launched to make sure agriculture's best interests are included. | designer491, Bigstock
As the U.S. negotiates trade deals under a new presidential administration, the Farmers for Free Trade campaign has been launched to make sure agriculture's best interests are included. | designer491, Bigstock

As a former U.S. ambassador to China, Max Baucus has seen firsthand the demand for agricultural products there. But will countries other than the United States be filling that demand?

Baucus, and others affiliated with Farmers for Free Trade, are aiming to increase U.S. agricultural trade with China, but also beyond.

Farmers for Free Trade is a recently launched campaign that is focused on rebuilding local support for trade in states across the country. The new effort comes at a time when trade is under fire despite the fact that U.S. farmers export half of all major commodities, contributing to a $20 billion ag trade surplus this year and supporting millions of rural jobs.

“China is going like gangbusters. They’re doing deals with lots of other countries -- trade deals for their benefit,” said Baucus, who also represented Montana in the U.S. Senate from 1978 to 2014. “Australia is doing trade deals to their benefit, as is Japan, as are lots of other Asian countries, to say nothing of countries in other parts of the world.”

During an October 10 conference call hosted by Farmers for Free Trade and American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), leaders from both organizations spoke of the importance of global trade amid the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and re-negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Baucus, co-chairman of Farmers for Free Trade, said the opportunities are there to increase exports of U.S. grains, meat, poultry and eggs.

“We Americans are not taking advantage of that opportunity. In fact, we’re going the wrong direction,” he said.

Soybean, corn exports lagging

The other co-chairman of Farmers for Free Trade is another former U.S. Senator, Richard Lugar.

Lugar, who remains involved in a family farming operation in Indiana, has seen through his own agribusiness interests the need for expanded trade.

“The fact is the United States soybean exports this year are 17 percent behind last year at this stage. Corn export sales are running 41 percent behind last year,” explained Lugar. “We’ve had a good harvest this year. Our soybeans did well, but I’ve got most of them stored because the price is not right.”

But Lugar feels that with increased exports of soybeans through better trade deals, those prices could be better for not only his family, but for other U.S. farmers.

“Our farmers right now are suffering an income decline. We hope Farmers for Free Trade can make a difference,” he said.

Lack of trade hurts entire supply chain

Sara Lilygren serves as president of the board for Farmers for Free Trade. Lilygren previously worked as Tyson Foods’ executive vice president of corporate affairs. During her career with Tyson, she gained a lot of insight about the importance of trade and who all benefits from it.

Lilygren Sara Cms

Sara Lilygren | Photo by Roy Graber

“As someone who has spent a career of talking with farmers and ranchers, I can tell you that any erosion of our exports represents the last straw. As farm incomes continue to fall, trade is what sustains our rural communities,” said Lilygren.

“It’s not just our farmers whose livelihoods are on the line, it’s harvesters, processors, packagers, truckers, shippers and everyone else who depends on a highly integrated world-class, cross-border supply chain.”

A bipartisan effort

Lilygren and the two former senators stressed that their organization is focused on making sure farmers have a seat at the table when trade negotiations are made.

And even though the current presidential administration is Republican, global agricultural trade should not be a partisan issue.

“To be successful, you have to be bipartisan,” said Baucus.

The bipartisan nature of the organization is reflected in its leadership. Baucus is a Democrat; Lugar is a Republican.

Support from Farm Bureau

AFBF President Zippy Duvall said his organization is in agreement with what Farmers for Free Trade is doing, and fully supports its initiatives in giving farmers a seat at the trade negotiation table.

Afbf Zippy Duvall

Zippy Duvall | Photo courtesy of American Farm Bureau Federation

“The rural community depends on a strong ag economy, where 20 percent of the farm income … comes from foreign trade,” said Duvall, who is also a contract broiler grower and cattle producer. “One out of every three acres that is planted is exported across our shores. We look at the population today when 95 percent of the population is outside our borders and we have to be a player in the trade arena so we can move our products outside of our country and help feed the world.”

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