Amidst trade tension, farmers call for a new approach to trade, NAFTA

Wisconsin Farmers Union
Dairy cows on Jim Goodman's organic dairy farm follow a path between pasture and barn. Goodman, President of the National Family Farm Coalition, says free trade and the export market will not solve the underlying problems facing family farms today.

MADISON – In the midst of increasingly heated discussions about trade this week, Wisconsin farmers and other experts offer some unique perspectives that question our nation's current approach to agricultural trade.

Darin Von Ruden, President of Wisconsin Farmers Union, said the export market is the least lucrative and most volatile destination for agricultural products.

"Exports should be a release valve for surplus production, not our central strategy for maintaining U.S. farm incomes," Von Ruden said. "Our current approach to trade creates an uneven playing field and puts U.S. farmers in an unfair competition with farmers in other countries."

Von Ruden says the U.S. needs to follow a steady course of reorienting both trade and domestic agricultural policy to bring long-term prosperity to rural communities. 

Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden.

“Our current approach to trade is not serving farmers well,” Von Ruden said.  “With over 20 percent of U.S. agricultural output headed for international markets, farmers have become vulnerable to factors over which they have no control, such as exchange rates or trade wars with other countries.”

Dependence on exports

Wisconsin Dells farmer, Nels Nelson, who runs a 350-cow dairy believes that it would be "destructive" to pull out of NAFTA or become involved in a trade war with China due to the country's dependence on those export markets.

Wisconsin Dells farmer, Nels Nelson, who runs a 350-cow dairy believes that it would be "destructive" to pull out of NAFTA or become involved in a trade war with China due to the country's dependence on those export markets.

"We would do better to reduce our dependence on exports and try to negotiate fair trade deals that actually support farmers and communities," Nelson said.

Relying on exports puts farmers at risk, who subsequently suffer from volatility in prices, making it impossible to plan as a business, he said.

“What does a car factory do when they have an oversupply of cars?” Nelson asked.  “They don’t build a new factory, they cut back on supply. We’re losing more than a dairy farm a day in Wisconsin because we can’t get a decent price for our milk. Every farm that goes out of business deals a blow to all the other businesses around—the seed and implement dealers, the supply salesmen. We need our elected officials and industry leaders to come up with a real solution and not just repeat the ‘more exports’ mantra.”

While exports have come to account for a significant portion of farm income, looking at exports alone only paints half of the picture, stressed David Newby, president of the Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition.

David Newby

"Again and again, free-trade proponents repeat the same half-true statistics about how exports have increased under NAFTA,” Newby said. “But what about imports? True, higher exports mean more sales for agribusiness corporations, but at the same time, increased imports equal the loss of domestic markets for farmers. So what really matters is our balance of trade,’ exports minus imports."

When looking at both side of the ledger, Newby says the numbers are "much less rosy".  According to the most recent data available, Wisconsin’s state-specific agricultural trade deficit with Canada and Mexico was $12.6 million in 2016.

"Looking at the full picture, Wisconsin is losing out," Newby said.

Tony Schultz holds up a tray of brussel sprouts Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, in his storage room at Stoney Acres Farm in Athens, Wis.

Tony Schultz direct markets vegetables, beef, and maple syrup and hosts weekly on-farm pizza nights on his farm in the summer. The Athens farmer says as a vegetable producer he is keenly aware that imports of fresh vegetables have steadily increased since the passage of NAFTA.

In 2015, the U.S. had an $11.4 billion trade deficit in fresh and processed fruits and vegetables.

"Trade is a two-way street. My customers can go to the grocery store and buy tomatoes or lettuce or cucumbers from Mexico for a fraction of what it costs me to produce the same crop in the United States," Schultz said. "I’m all for competition, if the competition is fair. But the minimum wage in Mexico is $3.86 per day. How can I compete with that wage as an employer? And why would I even want to try?"

Schultz said the strategy for rural prosperity should be in building up the local economy rather than trying to pay the lowest wages on the continent.

Free trade shortcomings

Free trade and the export market will not solve the underlying problems facing family farms today says Wonewoc dairy farmer Jim Goodman.

"Trade agreements like NAFTA have only sped up agricultural concentration, driving family farmers out of business," said Wonewoc who is also President of the National Family Farm Coalition. "These agreements must instead be 'fair trade,' ensuring equitable treatment to farmers on both sides of the border and a fair price based on their cost of production.”

Wonewoc farmer Jim Goodman says trade agreements like NAFTA have only sped up agricultural concentration, driving family farmers out of business.

Karen Hansen-Kuhn, Director of Trade and Global Governance at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy emphasized the negative impact of free trade on family farmers.

"The combination of US agricultural and trade policies has decimated family farms and increased corporate concentration in agriculture. Since NAFTA was implemented, the U.S. has lost some 247,000 family farms," Hansen-Kuhn said. "The current system is unsustainable, as farmers are compelled to export at below the true cost of production. Simplistic calls to expand exports won't get us to the fair and sustainable food and farm system we need. We need a new approach to trade that includes mechanisms to shelter farmers from volatile markets."

Small farms squeezed out

At the same time, farmers cannot afford to see NAFTA terminated said crop and livestock farmer, Michael Slattery. However, the agreement should be restructured.

Michael and Nancy Slattery

“NAFTA and other ‘free’ trade agreements encourage excess production based on the false premise that we can export our way to agricultural prosperity. The result has been the plunging of crop prices, the dumping of major crops on foreign markets, the squeezing out of 200,000 small and mid-scale U.S. farms, and the undermining of domestic farm markets in our trade partners, particularly Mexico where 2 million farmers were forced off their land," the Manitowoc farmer said. "NAFTA and other similar agreements do not address the fundamental problem we face — overproduction. Supply management of U.S. dairy, grains and meat would stabilize and improve farmers’ bottom line.”

Burt Paris, a dairy farmer in Belleville, Green County, hopes farmers will look for solutions closer to home in their search to improve farm profitability including better domestic policy.

“So many times you hear people talking about the need to increase our exports, but by depending on exports, we're depending on other people for our profitability.  I'm really pleased to hear about more cooperatives implementing plans with their farmers to make sure that the co-op’s supply of milk lines up with their demand," Paris said. "If I have an incentive as a farmer to manage supply, that's something I can control. I see supply management, both at the cooperative and at the federal level, as a way of taking control of our business and fixing this ourselves rather than relying on government programs or the ups and downs of global markets to save us." 

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan.

Congressman Mark Pocan says the opportunity to renegotiate NAFTA is an important chance to level the playing field for American farmers.

“We need to give our farmers the assurance that if they use good conservation practices and pay themselves and their workers fair wages, they will not be undercut by imported products produced elsewhere with underpaid labor and poor environmental standards," Rep. Pocan said. "We need a new approach to trade that plays to the strengths of American farmers, rather than an approach that places them in a race to the bottom.”