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Farm groups, fearing a trade war, voice concerns to McMorris Rodgers

UPDATED: Fri., May 4, 2018, 3:55 p.m.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, left, and Derek Sandison, the director of the Washington Department of Agriculture, right, take part in a meeting in Spokane with Washington fruit and grain producers, state agriculture and trade officials, and representatives from Farmers for Free Trade, on Thursday, May 3, 2018. (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, left, and Derek Sandison, the director of the Washington Department of Agriculture, right, take part in a meeting in Spokane with Washington fruit and grain producers, state agriculture and trade officials, and representatives from Farmers for Free Trade, on Thursday, May 3, 2018. (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said Thursday she is concerned about the potential impact of President Donald Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs and his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but encouraged by the influence of some of Trump’s pro-trade advisers and appointees.

The Republican congresswoman said she met last month with Larry Kudlow, the new head of the National Economic Council, and that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had accepted her invitation to visit Eastern Washington this summer. She said Perdue has even taken the step of illustrating for the president how across-the-board tariffs could hurt trade-dependent farming regions – regions that generally helped Trump win the 2016 election.

“He’s put together a map of the United States of America and really impressed upon President Trump the impact of trade, and especially in rural and agriculture areas,” McMorris Rodgers said of Perdue. “He’s a strong proponent, and one of the most articulate and passionate people within the administration, telling the story of the importance of these trade agreements as it relates to farming.”

McMorris Rodgers’ remarks came during a meeting in Spokane with Washington fruit and grain producers, state agriculture and trade officials, and representatives from Farmers for Free Trade, a nationwide coalition formed last year to highlight the importance of U.S. crop exports.

“I was concerned when the president made the announcement to pull out of TPP over a year ago now,” McMorris Rodgers said, referring to the controversial trade pact recently signed by 11 Pacific Rim nations.

She said the TPP, while not a perfect deal, is “the best counter to China and China’s growing dominance” in the global economy, adding that companies in China have engaged in illegal practices such as steel dumping and theft of intellectual property.

McMorris Rodgers faces a tough re-election bid this year against Democrat Lisa Brown, and trade has become a major campaign issue. In a statement Friday, Brown, a former state legislator and chancellor of Washington State University’s Spokane campus, called for a bipartisan push to resolve international trade tensions.

“Eastern Washington needs immediate meaningful negotiations to end unfair trade practices by China, while not not triggering a trade war with rash, unvetted tariffs that will be devastating for agriculture and destroy more jobs than are protected,” Brown said in the statement.

“Trade market relationships that have taken years to cultivate are under threat of being wiped out by tweets and lack of progress on trade agreements,” she added, in a clear reference to Trump’s more bellicose comments on Twitter. “At a time when farm income is already historically low and the farm bill is foundering in partisan games, adding this uncertainty is unacceptable.”

Washington is the most export-dependent state in the nation and Eastern Washington is in the thick of the statistics with a wheat industry that sells about 85 percent of its crop overseas.

American wheat producers fear they will face a competitive disadvantage when shipping to Japan, which is lowering its tariffs for TPP member countries but not for the United States. Japan is one of the top consumers of U.S. wheat, particularly the soft white and club varieties grown in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, which are ideal for making noodles and sponge cakes.

Brian Kuehl, the executive director of Farmers for Free Trade, said Trump’s tariff proposal could turn out to be the biggest threat to American farmers.

“We’re really worried we’re on the brink of a full-scale trade war,” he said, “and we’re really hoping everyone deescalates a bit.”

Farmers for Free Trade is led by two former U.S. senators, Indiana Republican Richard Luger and Montana Democrat Max Baucus.

A recent report by the organization estimates that the United States exports $2.6 billion in almonds, walnuts, pistachios, oranges, grapes, apples, cherries, wine, ginseng and pork to China – and retaliatory tariffs by the Chinese government could amount to $500 million per year.

Kuehl said some Chinese companies already have begun canceling orders of U.S. products such as wine, soybeans and sorghum.

“I don’t think most people recognize that there’s already tariffs in place that are hurting farmers,” he said. “It gets real when orders start getting canceled. These are people’s livelihoods.”

Some officials said during the meeting that Washington farmers can’t adjust to changing economic conditions as quickly as farmers in the Midwest, who can plant various crops when they are in highest demand. In Washington, the officials said, the vast majority of farmland is arid and suitable only for wheat and barley. And fruit trees take years to mature, so they can’t be planted or uprooted based on rapid swings in the market.

Kuehl and McMorris Rodgers both said they have been encouraged by recent developments on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump vowed to abandon on the campaign trail but later chose to renegotiate.

“I think we’re cautiously optimistic NAFTA will get renewed,” Kuehl said. “That’s the way the rhetoric is heading, at least.”

McMorris Rodgers said that with all of the recent changes in trade policy, Americans are beginning to realize how they stand to be affected.

“What we’re seeing is increased awareness as to the role trade plays in our economy, and our economy in Eastern Washington,” she said. “This has been a hot topic.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 4, 2018, to include comments from Lisa Brown.