Missouri farmers wait, worry as NAFTA negotiations drag on

Missouri farmers’ livelihoods will be on the chopping block if President Donald Trump follows through on threats to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“It will make a tremendous difference if they screw that up in renegotiations,” said Lynn Fodge, who runs Hopewell Farms outside of Paris, Missouri, with her husband and two sons.

Missouri would be among the states most negatively affected if NAFTA were abrogated, according to an analysis by the American Farm Bureau Federation, a nonprofit farm organization.

Sixty-nine percent of Missouri’s agricultural exports went to NAFTA partners in 2016, according to the farm bureau. Missouri was one of 12 states with more than 50 percent of agricultural exports going to NAFTA partners.

House Speaker Paul Ryan recently announced a Thursday deadline for reworking the deal, but negotiators from the United States, Canada and Mexico are unlikely to meet that target, Bloomberg reports. That leaves many in Missouri’s agricultural sector to wait, watch and hope to avoid withdrawal.

Hopewell Farms is mainly a cattle seedstock operation – the farm specializes in breeding. Seedstock cattle can be used as replacement cattle for other farmers. The farm does not directly export its beef, but if prices go up, people are less likely to replace their heifers and bulls.

“Prices are already awful,” Fodge said. “If you slap those tariffs on beef and on corn and beans and so forth, it will make a tremendous difference if we can stay profitable.”

In 2016, Missouri’s agricultural exports generated more than $3.6 billion in revenue, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That year’s data is the most recent available.

Missouri stands to lose at least 100,000 jobs in agriculture if the U.S. pulls out of NAFTA, said Michael Miller, an assistant professor in the School of Agricultural Sciences at Northwest Missouri State University.

Trump has promised to withdraw from the treaty. He campaigned on the issue and has said the agreement hurts U.S. manufacturing and takes away domestic jobs. Both Democratic and Republican Congress members have urged the president not to abrogate NAFTA, which took effect in 1994.

The president has repeatedly criticized the treaty in tweets, calling it a “cash cow” for other countries.

“It’s a tough situation because, in general, most of our members are pretty supportive of the president,” said Eric Bohl, the public policy director of the Missouri Farm Bureau. But, “on this specific issue, we don’t really see things on trade from the exact same angle.”

Fodge said she supports the president and his stance on rolling back regulation. But when it comes to NAFTA, they disagree.

“I think we’re all a little bit worried,” she said. “They sure need to not lose sight of agriculture” in treaty renegotiations.

Bohl agreed that farmers are anxious about NAFTA.

“People are definitely concerned about taking steps backward in a renegotiation,” he said.

The rallying cry of Missouri farmers has been this, Bohl said: “Let’s not do any harm in renegotiation. Let’s not mess up what we’ve already got.”

Fifty-one percent of all agricultural exports from Missouri go to Mexico, Miller said.

“That’s a greater percentage than any other state,” Miller said. “It would be, for the agriculture sector, a significant blow” to withdraw.

Eighty-nine percent of corn exported from Missouri goes to NAFTA partners, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. More than 90 percent of soybean and wheat exports go to NAFTA partners.

Soybeans were the top agricultural export from Missouri in 2016, bringing in $1.3 billion, according to the USDA. Next was corn at $348 million, followed by $284 million for feeds and grain.

“Missouri’s farm families have made soybean our top crop, and they rely on having a strong international market,” Gary Wheeler, CEO and executive director of the Missouri Soybean Association, said in a statement to the Missouri Business Alert. “NAFTA has been a success for Missouri and is key to continued growth in our economy.”

Miller agreed.

“I don’t think you can argue that NAFTA has been bad for agriculture in Missouri.”

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