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Friday, February 16, 2018 1:00 am

Ag leaders say NAFTA redo would devastate state farms

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

President Donald Trump's plan to either overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement or withdraw the United States from the deal could be “catastrophic” and “devastating” for Hoosier farmers, state agriculture leaders said Thursday.

“We don't want to screw it up,” Joe Steinkamp, a member of the Indiana Soybean Alliance from the Evansville area, said in a conference call with reporters.

NAFTA renegotiations began in August among U.S., Canadian and Mexican trade officials, with the next round of talks scheduled to begin Feb. 25. Since taking effect in 1994, NAFTA has removed tariffs on goods traded among the three nations, but Trump has blamed a loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs on the pact.

Of Indiana's nearly $1.5 billion in yearly agriculture exports, 42 percent goes to Canada and Mexico, according to Bruce Kettler, director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.

NAFTA “has been a tremendous trade agreement for agriculture,” Joe Moore, executive vice president of the Indiana Beef Cattle Association, said Thursday.

“We ask that if it requires renegotiation, just leave us out of it. I'm pretty happy with the way it is,” Moore told reporters.

He said he agrees with assessments that an end to U.S. participation in NAFTA would be “devastating to agriculture in all respects.” Moore said beef producers would face a 20 percent tariff on exports to Mexico.

Withdrawal “would be particularly catastrophic for Indiana corn farmers,” said DeKalb County farmer Sarah Delbecq, president of the Indiana Corn Growers Association.

Delbecq said Purdue University has predicted that corn prices would fall as much as 50 cents a bushel a year without NAFTA. She said her farm would lose $80,000 a year in that scenario.

Steinkamp, a member of the board of the American Soybean Alliance, said Mexico is the No. 1 buyer of Indiana soybean meal and oil and the No. 2 buyer, behind China, of whole beans. Canada is the No. 3 customer for meal.

America's exit from NAFTA would “hit my pocketbook big time,” he said.

As a presidential candidate, Trump called NAFTA the “single worst trade deal ever approved by this country,” and he vowed to renegotiate or terminate the agreement. Trump won most agricultural states, including Indiana, in the 2016 election. So if his administration were to halt or revamp U.S. participation in NAFTA, a reporter asked, aren't farmers complicit?

Delbecq responded, “There will be another election, and farmers and ag will be able to speak at that time, given past actions of decision-makers and administrations.”

Moore recalled that Trump also said he would pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which was “treasured” among beef producers, and did so soon after taking office in 2017.

“I don't think that many people vote on a single issue. I think when they go to the polls, there's a lot of things that come into play before you flip the switch for one candidate or another,” Moore said.

“To say that farmers wouldn't vote for President Trump because he was against TPP or he was against NAFTA is probably a pretty narrow outlook on that process,” he said.

Moore said later that his group would “keep beating the drum and make sure our voices are heard” by the White House and Congress on NAFTA.

Thursday's conference call was arranged by Americans for Farmers & Families, a national coalition that advocates for the preservation of NAFTA.

bfrancisco@jg.net