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Bonnie Durheim’s farm on Peone Prairie in Mead.
Photo by Jackson Kiehn

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Supporting USMCA on four wheels

Trade motorcade makes a stop in Benton County for roundtable discussion

August/September 2019
By Trista Crossley


Over the summer, the Motorcade for Trade has been making its way across the country, touring farm districts and holding events to emphasize the importance of trade, especially the necessity of passing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

In early July, the trade promotion-bedazzled RV found its way to the Benton County family farm of Nicole Berg, past president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers and current treasurer of the National Association of Wheat Growers. Waiting to greet the RV and take part in a roundtable were a smorgasbord of industry stakeholders that ranged from farmers and local and state policymakers, to exporters and a representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Everything from wheat to onions to tree fruit was represented.

“We’ve got 13,000 miles under our belt. We started this off in April in Pennsylvania, and we are really happy to be here in Washington state,” said Angela Marshall Hofmann, co-executive director of Farmers for Free Trade, the nonprofit group that is sponsoring the motorcade. “We’ve covered more than 17 states now. I think a couple things we see that are very consistent are, No. 1, trade matters to our ag families. No 2, this is a time of a great uncertainty. There are many trade negotiations pending—NAFTA, China and steel causing a lot of disruption. Passing the USMCA may be the most important thing we can do right now to get North American trade back on track.”

Hofmann said it’s been interesting to hear the same concerns from so many different commodities and businesses. One of the facts brought up at the roundtable was that in Washington state, nearly 25 percent of the jobs are in some way affected by trade.

“That’s a huge number that people don’t talk about enough,” she said. “Just the level of connectively, too, whether it’s right here on the farm or the products going down the river. It’s the ports and those who work in the towns. They are all affected. I think those are the stories our members of Congress and other local leaders need to hear as they are making policy that affects rural America.”

Other highlights from the roundtable included:

Randy Ward, Tri-Cities Grain. We sell to exporters. Traditionally Pacific Northwest exporters sell to countries in the Ring of Fire like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, so it’s pretty easy to lose sight of how important Mexico is to what we do. Their demand is huge. They are one of our largest trading partners. With regards to Japan, just for this marketing year, 525,000 metric tons (of wheat) have gone to Japan, but so far, 761,000 metric tons have gone to Mexico. Without that, could you imagine, if instead of having a 2 billion bushel carryout, if the problem were to continue and they pull their demand from another country, we have a 3 billion bushel carryout? It can’t be understated how important they are to our overall balance table.

The quality that the U.S. provides and the close trading partners that we have in Mexico, it’s absolutely paramount that we get something ratified to keep the demand there. Without it, if they go to other sources, which in today’s world is a lot easier to do than some folks realize, our price sensitivity would see an immediate impact, and that goes all the way down to the local area.

Nicole Berg, National Association of Wheat Growers treasurer and Benton County wheat grower. We (the wheat industry) believe USMCA is a bipartisan issue. This is an issue that is for the United States of America, not the Democrats, not the Republicans, but for the whole U.S. It doesn’t matter who’s elected where. They should be representing the United States because we all need to pull together for the farmers, for the industry, for manufacturers, for jobs.

David Douglas, tree fruit grower and packer. This agreement and the certainty that comes with this agreement is critical to our industry. Any headwinds that we face in any of our export markets have a huge impact on the price we can sell the fruit for or where we can sell the fruit. If we can’t export it, we have to move it into the northeast and compete with other growing regions, and it just pushes prices down.

Bill Jenkin, Washington’s 16th Legislative District representative. We need to help our farmers, especially in Eastern Washington, because that’s what it is all about. That’s our lifestyle, and that’s our livelihood.

Gary Bailey, Washington Grain Commission and Whitman County wheat farmer. We (the PNW) don’t necessarily sell to Mexico, but the point being that we need that market to keep those bushels being sold. It just helps the balance sheet on the whole wheat market. Our business is a relationship business with our customers. If we don’t have that relationship where they start feeling like we’re not a consistent supplier, they’ll look elsewhere. It takes a long time to foster these relationships.

Ryan Munn, grower of grass seed, onion and sugar beets at Sunheaven Farms. We ship a lot of onions into Canada, so that’s an important market for us. Our markets depend so much on what happens in other global markets whether we ship directly to them or not. So we need good agreements with Canada and Mexico because they are our closest trading partners.

Brian Dansel, U.S. Department of Agriculture farm production and conservation mission area. It’s not just agriculture alone, but I feel like all of Eastern Washington is heavily dependent on trade. We want to move on this and make sure things happen that are beneficial to American farmers.

Sharon Brown, Washington’s 8th Legislative District senator. Washington is one of the most trade dependent states in the nation. It’s critical that we get USMCA passed and that we continue to help our farmers. I can’t think of very many industries left in the U.S. that are third and fourth generation.

This is a red state and a blue state, but this is not a red or a blue issue. That’s one of the biggest hurdles we have in the state is educating our friends across the aisle that this is an issue that impacts everyone. It doesn’t matter if you live in downtown Seattle, in Queen Anne or on Bainbridge Island, the onion that you are eating probably comes from this area. It is critically important for jobs and the health of the entire state that we look at this more holistically and just stop pointing fingers at each other.

Howard Jensen, general manager of Sunheaven Farms. This agreement plays a vital role in our country’s success. All these products we raise, many of them are very perishable, so we need to have open markets so we can get that product there and be able to sell it.

Jason Walker, onions, grass seed, corn and wheat grower. When it comes to customers, Canada is a huge customer for us. Mexico is a huge customer for us. We almost look at them as domestic trading partners in a sense that they are so close. We work so closely with them, we don’t look at that as exports anymore because we have such a good relationship with customers in those countries.

When it comes to the onion business, we grow too many onions in the U.S. for the U.S. to consume all the onions that we grow. We are kind of like the apple industry. We are really dependent on exports. Because it is a world market anymore, we have to protect what we have, and exports are critical to Washington state.

Brenden Kent, general sales manager at Sunset Produce. We are one of the largest onion package shippers in the county, probably in the world. We do a lot of business into Canada and some into Mexico. We need to find level ground that makes sense to where we can trade back and forth with them. Finding some common ground and not losing markets is a big deal on the fresh produce side. Up here in the Horse Heaven Hills, I want to say 15, almost 20 percent of the onions in the whole U.S. are grown right here.

Roy Keck, Benton County port commissioner. I understand that the Washington Public Ports Association has identified that 25 percent of every job in the state of Washington is linked to trade, to some component or aspect of trade.

Leslie Druffel, communications and recruiting coordinator at The McGregor Company. There are a lot of times, outside of the school system in rural Washington, where we might be the largest employer in town. Those are living wage jobs. Think about all those jobs that are all connected to the production of food. We are all trade dependent.