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From apples to wheat, NAFTA has been a boon for Washington agriculture

President Bill Clinton holds an apple while attending a North American Free Trade Agreement trade fair with then Rep. Jay Inslee on the South Lawn of the White House Wednesday Oct. 20, 1993. (Courtesy Brocker.org)
President Bill Clinton holds an apple while attending a North American Free Trade Agreement trade fair with then Rep. Jay Inslee on the South Lawn of the White House Wednesday Oct. 20, 1993. (Courtesy Brocker.org)

For Washington apples, the North American Free Trade Agreement has been a good deal.

The agreement has allowed apples grown in Central Washington to travel, unfettered and untaxed, down to Mexico and up to Canada.

Exports to the two countries have created more than 4,000 jobs and the international exposure has boosted Washington’s reputation as the apple state.

“These kind of agreements give us a leg up,” said Rebecca Lyons, international marketing director for the Washington State Apple Commission. “You know, one of the challenges we have here is we are a higher-cost producer and our competitors in many of these markets are not.”

Lyons said prior to NAFTA’s implementation in 1994, Washington exported some apples to Mexico and Canada, but high tariffs made it a costly endeavor.

Now, between 7 and 9 percent of Washington’s apple crop goes to Mexico.

“We have full access. There are no duties,” said Todd Fryhover, the president of the Washington apple commission. “It’s a year-round market. It really is perfect the way that it is.”

And the benefit isn’t limited to apples.

Mark Powers, the president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, said 20 percent of the pear crop and 15 percent of the apple crop go to Mexico or Canada. The export business alone generates about $500 million per year, he said.

Any withdrawal from NAFTA would shake the Washington Apple industry to its core.

In May, President Donald Trump announced plans to renegotiate the deal, seemingly stepping back from campaign promises to withdraw the United States completely from the agreement.

During the campaign, Trump called the deal “the worst trade deal in the history of the world.”

Nationally, farmers and farmer associations expressed concern at the potential renegotiation. Powers, however, said he is not worried.

“I think that there is room for renegotiation and improvement,” he said.

However, any changes need to keep agriculture’s best interest in mind. Especially important, he said, is to not impose any tariffs on Mexican goods, which could start a trade war.

Prior to NAFTA, Powers said, there was a 20 percent tariff on any Washington tree fruit going to Mexico. The removal of that cost has led to a 70 percent increase in exports.

“I know there are concerns related to manufacturing goods and that kind of thing,” Powers said.

He hopes that whatever is put in place to protect manufacturing interests doesn’t “harm agriculture interests.”

Since 1994, annual farm exports to Mexico have increased five-fold to about $18 billion. Mexico is the No. 3 market for U.S. agriculture.

Apple growers in Washington stood to benefit from the Trans Pacific Partnership, so when Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in January, Powers said it was a “disappointment.”

It was particularly damaging to the effort to open up the Vietnam apple market, he said. Still, Washington already has decent access to Asian markets, although there are tariffs.

And Washington’s focus on Asia won’t change.

“That’s the growth area in this world,” Powers said. “Our industry is focused in Asia and the growing middle class.”

Dave Robison, a mid-size apple farmer said he didn’t notice a huge change when NAFTA went into affect in 1994. He hopes Trump reduces regulations on agriculture, but for the most part, he said, he doesn’t pay too much attention to politics.

“As a full-time farmer, I’m pretty far removed,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.