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Canadian and U.S. agriculture officials say keep NAFTA, punt on tariffs

Cattle feed between milking sessions at Coulee Flats Dairy on Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in Mesa, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Cattle feed between milking sessions at Coulee Flats Dairy on Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in Mesa, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Canadian and U.S. agriculture officials agreed Monday to push the Trump Administration to renew the North American Free Trade Agreement and “reconsider” the tariffs that they said are threatening to kill markets for farmers in both countries.

The officials representing several Northwest States and Canadian provinces all met Monday as part of a panel discussion that included U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Bill Northey.

Officials and trade representatives said they are already hearing from producers for everything from cherries to cheese who are seeing falling prices caused by the uncertainty of trade agreements and retaliatory tariffs in a response to those imposed by President Trump on imports of steel and aluminum.

“The administration is looking to challenge” some aspects of the agriculture market that had unfair trading practices, Northey said. “Ag is hit almost out of the box whenever there is a challenge. None of us individuals control all of those pieces. But (Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue) wants something to soften that blow to producers. What that looks like, I don’t know.”

Celia Gould, the director of Idaho’s Department of Agriculture, said the Gem State’s two biggest export partners are Canada and Mexico.

“We are just like all the other Ag states. We have more problems than we are able to solve,” she said. “It’s not just dollars lost, it’s relationships lost and they are very hard to get back. I would suggest that there is no mitigation program that will make (producers) whole. Only free trade and fair markets will make them whole.”

Lana Popham, British Columbia’s minister of agriculture, said 70 percent of what her province trades is with the United States.

“We might nitpick at each other, but if we are not able” to renew NAFTA “it’s devastating for us,” she said.

Derek Sandison, director of the Washington Department of Agriculture, said the Evergreen State exported $416 million dollars worth of agriculture products to Canada and $53 million to Mexico in 1996. In 2016, those exports were $1.3 billion to Canada and $333 million to Mexico.

“NAFTA is incredibly important to us,” Sandison said. “Renegotiate NAFTA, but we want to continue our trade partnerships with Canada and Mexico.”

Sandison said recent tariffs on Washington apples have gone up to 75 percent in India, 50 percent in China and 20 percent in Mexico.

“It’s also a very difficult situation with hay, dairy and wheat,” he said. “We have a lot of concerns and frustrations but not a lot of of answers for how we are going to deal with this.”

Moderator Patrick Kole, of the Idaho Potato Commission, questioned the panel if asking the Trump administration to reconsider the tariffs was too strong of a step.

“I’m struggling a tad bit about how to influence this particular administration. Are we taking a stick and poking it in their eyes?” Kole said.

“You all should say what you feel needs to be said,” Northey responded. “I don’t think it hurts anything to be blunt.”

After talking for a while, Northey added: “In Washington, we learn to talk for 5 minutes without saying anything. I think I just did it,” he said to laughter.

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