LINCOLN, Neb. (CN) — The governor of solidly Republican Nebraska joined state agriculture officials and Mexican grain buyers Tuesday to preach caution as President Trump attempts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In a joint news conference in the middle of America’s breadbasket, officials from both countries declared the economic importance of NAFTA for agricultural states.
In the Cornhusker state alone, $287 million is added to local economies from exports to Mexico each year, governor Pete Ricketts said. Loss of the Mexican marker would be a devastating blow to a state struggling with a $900 million budget deficit and wrangling over deep cuts to education and aid for the elderly and disabled as a way to bail out of the red ink.
“Mexico is Nebraska’s largest export market for corn, dairy, sugar and sweeteners, and second-largest market for soybeans, wheat, sorghum and distillers’ grains. All of this combined accounts for thousands of Nebraska jobs,” Ricketts said in his opening remarks.
Ricketts, a Republican, supports Trump and campaigned for him in Nebraska, but seeks more trade with Mexico, not less.
Enacted in 1994, NAFTA eliminated trade tariffs between Mexico, Canada and the United States. U.S. critics blame it for killing manufacturing jobs, a constant refrain in Trump’s presidential campaign. But NAFTA has been a huge boon to U.S. farmers and farm economies.
U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico have quintupled under NAFTA, and ag exports to Canada have tripled. One of every 10 acres of American farmland is planted for exports to the two countries, according to a statement from Ricketts’ office.
In Mexico however, NAFTA has been blamed for devastating the countryside, where small farmers cannot compete with mechanized U.S. agriculture on giant farms.
U.S. farmers exported 523 million bushels of corn to Mexico in 2016, with $2.5 billion coming back in the trade, according to the National Corn Growers Association.
“Don’t take for granted our business. The U.S. needs us as buyers and we need U.S. grain,” said Felipe Basarte, a representative of the Mexican national feed association and purchasing manager for the Querétaro state cattle union.
Three weeks ago Trump threatened to issue an executive order to withdraw the United States from NAFTA. He quickly backtracked amid outcry from trade groups, Canada and Mexico. But the troubling prospect of NAFTA renegotiation loomed heavy Tuesday in Lincoln.
Basarte said that in response to statements from the White House, “Mexico is looking for easier ways to import from Brazil.” He added that any new tariffs imposed by the U.S. would send him searching for better deals elsewhere.
“I have not seen this level of concern or reaction from our growers,” said Jon Doggett, executive vice president and head of public policy of the National Corn Growers Association, when asked how the farmers he represents reacted to Trump’s threat.
“This rhetoric is making a difference, and not a good difference. We need to be careful what we say,” Doggett added. “We need strong trade agreements like NAFTA. NAFTA has been one of the most important catalysts for economic growth in our industry that I have seen.”
Ricketts agreed that remarks such as the threat of an executive order could hurt Nebraskans, where 34,000 jobs would be at risk if the trade agreement were torn up.
“We’re pleased with the relationship between Nebraska and Mexico in regards to NAFTA, and we’d look to expand on that. No industry here in Nebraska has told me there’s a problem with NAFTA,” the governor said.
The U.S. Grains Council, National Corn Growers Association and Nebraska Corn Board hosted a group of visiting Mexican grain officials in Lincoln for a town hall.
The five-member group from Mexico, which manages 80 percent of its nation’s demand for corn, will move on to Washington, D.C. this week to meet with congressional leaders to discuss trade. The group includes representatives from Mexico City, Yucatán, Querétaro, Jalisco and San Luis Potosí.