NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Make no mistake about it: The folks at the American Farm Bureau Federation are grateful to President Donald Trump.
For agriculture, the atmosphere in the nation’s capital has much improved in the year that Trump has been in office, said Zippy Duvall, the organization’s president, during the Jan. 7 opening session of its annual convention in Nashville, Tenn.
“There’s no question we have a seat at the table in this Trump administration,” he said.
Duvall went on to recount the blessings that Trump has bestowed on agriculture.
Foremost is the pending rescission of the Obama administration’s “waters of the U.S.” rule, or WOTUS, which the Farm Bureau feared would expand federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction.
“Our land is our heritage and nothing gets us more riled up than when someone comes onto our land and tells us how to do a job we’ve been doing for generations,” Duvall said.
The installation of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency has restored a sense of common sense stewardship to that agency, he said.
Likewise, the reduction in size of certain national monuments by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has reassured ranchers who depend on those public lands for grazing, Duvall said.
Under the direction of USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity will scale back a federal bureaucracy that stands in the way of a thriving farming industry, he said.
“He knows how to farm in the face of bad weather, bad markets and bad regulations,” Duvall said.
Beneath this jubilation, though, was an undercurrent of anxiety about where the administration may be heading on international trade — particularly regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which lowered trade barriers between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Before the opening session was held, for example, large buttons proclaiming, “I Support NAFTA,” “I Support Trade,” and “Farmer For Free Trade,” were placed on every seat in the ballroom.
Trump has already proven he’s willing to act boldly on trade by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal forged during the Obama administration.
During his presidential campaign, Trump disparaged NAFTA for sending U.S. jobs overseas. Upon becoming president, he was persuaded not to dissolve the agreement in favor of revising it.
Duvall said the president had promised him and other agriculture leaders that NAFTA will be renegotiated to be even more beneficial for American farmers, who export heavily to Canada and Mexico.
“I take the president at his word,” he said.
During a later press conference, though, Duvall acknowledged the farm industry is “nervous” about the possibility of the NAFTA talks going awry.
“Nobody really knows what is going on behind closed doors,” he said.
It’s also troubling the U.S. is focused on renegotiating an old trade deal like NAFTA, which was enacted more than 20 years ago, while other countries are actively pursuing new agreements, he said. “We’re very concerned about that.”
Duvall said he planned to ask Trump to reassure the industry about international trade during the president’s Jan. 8 address to the Farm Bureau.
The organization also came upon another idea to nudge Trump toward seeing the trade issue its way.
In a cavernous hall packed with Farm Bureau members, Duvall and other several employees instructed the growers to engage with the president using his preferred mode of communication: Twitter.
Ultimately, more than 2,300 members connected their smartphones to a Farm Bureau website and sent out a tweet that alerted the president to a message: “Donald Trump delivered from Day 1. Keep working on issues BENEFITING farmers & ranchers: Trade, RegReform, Farm Bill #AFBF18.”
This sentiment was hammered home by Lawrence MacAuley, Canada’s minister of agriculture, who told the audience that dismantling agricultural supply chains between the U.S. and his country would hurt farmers and cost tens of thousands of related jobs.
The agricultural industries of the two nations are now more integrated than ever before, which helps them together compete more effectively on a global scale, he said.
“The fact of the matter is, we’re friends whether we like it or not,” MacAuley said.
Ted McKinney, USDA’s undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs, said proponents have occasionally used a “megaphone” to advocate stronger trade relationships, but at other times have been more subtle.
“We have used whispers when whispers are the best way of communicating,” McKinney said.
Up until this point, the negotiations over NAFTA have resembled a cautious “sumo match,” he said. “There may be too much circling and not enough engaging.”
Without going into specifics, McKinney said the U.S. has legitimate grievances over trade that Canada should recognize.
“I will continue to voice the opinion that NAFTA should not be blown up,” he said. “But Canada, it’s time to step up.”