Global trade more important than farm bill to Kansas producers

More than 100 Kansas Farm Bureau delegates lobbied for farmers during trip to Washington

As Washington lawmakers were working a mammoth omnibus bill to keep the government open, Francisco Sandoval Saqui ushered in yet another farm group into the Mexican Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“We have been hosting several delegates from Farm Bureaus across the United States,” he told a group of Kansas farmers who poured into the embassy’s meeting room.

“It’s a very interesting time regarding our trade relationship,” Sandoval Saqui said, then laughed, “It has been very dramatic at times. But we are very sure we are going to land something very productive. I’m sure it is going to be better.”

The nation’s farmers are concerned about trade—and Kansas Farm Bureau members are no different. The large group of 100 or so farmers took to Capitol Hill March 19 to 21 for the organization’s annual LEADS trip, hoping to get their voices heard on everything from the farm bill to tax reform. But even bigger than those, KFB President Rich Felts said, is trade.

“I’m going to prioritize that over the farm bill,” Felts said. “The farm bill, crop insurance, those are artificial means to supply and demand whereas trade, you are actually moving a commodity and putting it in the marketplace.”

Some staffers said President Donald Trump is just trying to rattle trading partners. Yet visits to Kansas’ five Republican lawmakers didn’t ease producers’ worries.

Trump has said he is withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He threatened to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement. A few weeks ago, he announced he would impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, causing concerns of retaliatory action from other countries.

“The people who got him elected are the ones who are going to hurt the most by that,” Steve Tuttle, a farmer from Wyandotte County, Kansas, told his representative, Lynn Jenkins, during a meeting in her office March 20. “That’s going to hurt him and the Republican Party. We need to get that message through to him."

“We tried,” Jenkins told him.

She said she sat next to Trump during a meeting a few weeks ago to bring the president up to speed on the impact of trade.

“I thought he got it,” Jenkins said, adding a few days later he made a proclamation regarding steel tariffs.

“Obviously, we aren’t on the same page with the president on trade, and we had hoped we could use diplomacy to bring him along.”

Congress, she added, doesn’t have the margins to fix it.

“We are going to continue to try to work with him,” she said.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer was in the Ways and Means Committee to testify about trade matters, Jenkins said, where she serves as a subchair.

“He hasn’t been terribly helpful, to be honest," she said of Lighthizer.

Peaceful protest?

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The Kansas Farm Bureau delegation couldn’t have picked a better, or busier, time to lobby their lawmakers.

In a stop at Rep. Ron Estes’ office, the Wichita Republican said he hopes to see a farm bill markup by April. He expected the omnibus bill to be voted on by the Friday deadline. Congress unveiled the text of the massive bill the evening of March 21 and Trump is expected to support it.

But Sen. Jerry Moran, speaking to the group that evening, reiterated Felts’ comments.

“This trade agenda that is out there is in my view the most threatening thing to the way we earn a living in Kansas that I can think of at the moment. We earn a living by selling elsewhere, and we want to make sure that this administration understands that.”

Moran said with these commodity prices, Kansas needs every market. He said he was in Wichita March 16 to celebrate Spirit’s 10,000th 737 fuselage coming off the assembly line. Those aircraft bodies are made with 100 percent aluminum, he said.

Meanwhile, withdrawing from TPP negotiations will have an impact on selling to countries like Asia.

“And, if you are going to withdraw from the negotiations of TPP, go to work negotiating agreements with other countries. The president said in his campaign he is for bilateral agreements—one country to the other. I’m not sure the rationale of that but if that is your rationale, don’t wait. Go negotiate those agreements.”

Organizations like Farm Bureau need to keep making their voices heard, Moran said.

“I think I still have the expectation that the president wants to withdraw from NAFTA,” he said. “And I think, unfortunately, that he and ambassador Lighthizer—when they get together, they egg each other on. We need to make certain that there are other voices saying here is the consequence of that.

One Kansas Farm Bureau member asked if a peaceful protest regarding trade would demonstrate support on agreements like NAFTA.

Moran said he has never encouraged anyone to protest.

However, the senator said, “I think the answer is yes.”

“I think there is a component of the political world in which they see we will keep agriculture voters and we can appeal to the industrial worker voters by taking this step. I think it is important for the people in the political world to see there are consequences to abandoning the opportunity for us to sell around the globe.”

Moran compared it to the Jimmy Carter presidency and the great embargo against the Soviet Union.

“Farmers felt like they weren’t being paid attention to and someone took advantage of them.”

Moran, generating a few laughs, added, “It may surprise some of you that there are decisions around here that are made political.

“That is why I think it is important for Farm Bureau, NCBA and others that the administration and the political people around the administration would see as natural supporters, allies and voters for the president that it matters to us.”

Marshall weighs in

“The president wants to get things done,” Rep. Roger Marshall told the delegation. “I made a big effort to understand who President Trump is personally. He’s very much a person based on outcome and holding us accountable."

Marshall participated in another round of negotiations in early March regarding the modernization of NAFTA.

He said NAFTA was one issue he has disagreed with Trump over, but said he was able to sit down and talk with the president about the agreement.

“He absolutely has the same goals for trade that we have. He wants a better agreement.”

Marshall said the steel tariffs are concerning.

“That is why we need great bilateral agreements with people, so we don’t end up with these tariffs and trade wars.”

But a trade war is already starting, he said.

“It has already happened in my district,” Marshall said, noting farmers were the first victim of China’s retaliation over the steel announcement. “We already lost 15 percent on our price of sorghum overnight.” 

Learning more

Caleb Mattix, a rancher from Colby who was on the trip with KFB, said it was interesting to hear about the trade roadblocks.  

“It doesn’t sound that critical, but it is just a matter of everyone making a compromise,” he said. “They keep talking about getting a better deal, but I suppose they know what they are talking about there. But maybe the United States needs to give a little, too.”               

As for Sandoval Saqui, with the Mexican Embassy, he said he knows the importance of Kansas trade to Mexico. It is one of the highest in the country with 31 percent of the state’s agriculture exports going to the country.

Mexico has skin in the game, too, he said. About 50 percent of Mexico’s fruits and vegetables are exported to the United States. Mexico is the world’s leading producer of avocados and the U.S. is their top supplier.

“Eight out of 10 avocados sold in the United States are produced in Mexico,” he said.

But that’s not the top U.S. purchase from his country. Not only do Americans watch the Super Bowl eating guacamole, Sandoval said, but they are also drinking Coronas and other Mexican beers, which accounts for more than $3 billion in sales a year.

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].