Farmers share anxiety over trade with USDA secretary

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, center, listens to a farmer.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, center, listens to a farmer during a roundtable discussion Friday at NDSU in Fargo. Perdue is flanked by North Dakota U.S. Senator John Hoeven, (R) and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum (R).
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Trade was a recurring theme on Friday when farmers met with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in Fargo.

"I've got to have trade, barley relies on trade, wheat relies on trade, we have to have trade," said Doyle Lenz, who farms near Rolla, N.D., not far from the Canadian border.

The meeting with Perdue came amid ongoing talks with Mexico and Canada to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement — and just a day after President Trump fanned concerns about a global trade war by signing an order for steel and aluminum tariffs.

 U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, left, speaks with reporters.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, left, speaks with reporters in Fargo on Friday March 9, 2018, with North Dakota U.S. Senator John Hoeven.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Like many farmers, Lenz supports Trump administration efforts to scale back environmental regulations. But he's worried about the possibility the president will pull out of NAFTA, much like he did the Trans Pacific Partnership.

"The reality is you know regulations are helpful, but if I lose trade it kills me," Lenz told the ag secretary.

Secretary Perdue says he's also worried about trade uncertainty.

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"I was in the oval office the other day and he started talking about withdrawing from NAFTA and one of those coughing fits hit and he said 'Sonny, you okay?' I said 'Mr. President, I just get choked up when you start about withdrawing from NAFTA,'" he said.

Perdue says Trump believes pulling out of trade deals is the best way to get a better deal.

Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Perdue said he was very concerned about retaliation against farm exports when the president rolled out tariffs on steel this week. But he said he's feeling much better after Trump agreed to protect key NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico from the tariffs.

And Perdue says he expects the president's positions on trade to be flexible.

"The good quality he has, while he's forceful, he's decisive and he moves forward and he's very determined, there's a little back door if you can find it and he's willing to change his mind and that's what we try to do," Perdue said.

Perdue said Trump's negotiating skill should not be underestimated. But he warned that world trade could be unsettled for some time.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., was an early, vocal supporter of President Trump. He said the president is trying to fix unfair trade provisions farmers have complained about for years, like Canadian restrictions on import of some farm commodities.

"I think therein lies one of our biggest frustrations, that while Canada does these things to us we tend to not fight back and then when we fight back we kind of wring our hands and go 'oh my gosh you know are we going to have a trade war,'" he said. "You know, it's okay to fight back once in a while."

Farmers just hope they won't be collateral damage in those fights.

Kevin Skunes farms near Fargo and is president of the National Corn Growers Association. He agrees trade agreements like NAFTA need to be reworked, but he said every time President Trump talks about scrapping NAFTA, the markets drop and farmers get squeezed.

"You know that's really detrimental, we're operating at or just below our profit margins right now in agriculture and you know it's quite a trying time in agriculture we don't need these little hiccups," he said.

Skunes said he hopes the steel tariffs don't bring retaliation against farm goods, but he's very concerned about the potential economic impact.

USDA Secretary Perdue said he's feeling farmers pain.

"I'm anxious as well along with them and I will be anxious until we get a NAFTA recertified, reauthorized, an improved, modernized NAFTA and then address the other nations around the world with our other importing countries that we depend on," he said.

Perdue said good progress is being made on renegotiating NAFTA and he's hopeful President Trump will consider getting back into a trade deal with Pacific Rim countries.

Correction (March 16, 2018): A previous version misidentified North Dakota U.S. Senator John Hoeven in a photo caption.