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Heitkamp: Trump administration's reckless trade policies could hurt farmers

A barley field outside Rolla, N.D., just below the Canadian border, is as far from Mexico as it gets in this country.

But don't let that distance fool you. Disrupting trade with Mexico has consequences as far away as that barley field—especially when agricultural exports alone support 27,000 good-paying jobs in North Dakota, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Trade is foundational for our state. North Dakota sells $4.1 billion dollars in agricultural products overseas each year, USDA reports. That's an economic boon in a state where one in four workers is a farmer or rancher, or works in a farm-related job.

Those exports and the jobs they create make rural America possible. Just ask Doyle Lentz, who has grown barley near Rolla for years, and ships about two-thirds of his barley to brewers in Mexico. What happens to Lentz and other farmers and ranchers—folks already grappling with low commodity prices—if that market suddenly becomes tougher to reach?

As the administration talks about throwing out or rewriting trade deals that guarantee our farmers access to Mexico, Canada, and other key trading partners, we can't forget how vital export markets are for North Dakota's workers. Trade policies that grow American manufacturing jobs have my full support, but they can't come at the expense of agriculture jobs—and I'll fight to make sure producers don't end up on the wrong side of new or renegotiated deals.

What worries me is that North Dakota farmers have already lost business because of rising tensions with top trading partners. Earlier this year, a new barley deal worth $200,000 for Doyle fell through because of strained relations between the U.S. and Mexico, as Politico reported last month. And it wasn't just Lentz—barley growers across our state lost out.

Rising tensions with China could have big repercussions for North Dakota soybean growers, who export 90 percent of their crops, primarily to China. Trade is also vital for American wheat growers, who export 50 percent of what they produce to hungry markets like Nigeria, the Philippines, and Japan. When 95 percent of consumers live outside the U.S., if we aren't exporting, we're losing.

That's why I'm doing everything I can to explain to this administration how reckless trade policies could put farm and ranch jobs in jeopardy. Over and over in meetings with President Trump and his cabinet nominees—including USDA nominee Sonny Perdue and U.S. Trade Representative nominee Robert Lighthizer—I've echoed North Dakota farmers' and ranchers' concerns, and I've reinforced how important trade is for rural communities.

We need strong trade deals sooner rather than later for North Dakota to compete in huge markets like Japan and growing markets like Vietnam and Malaysia. Staying on the sidelines gives competitors in Australia, Canada, and Mexico more time to get preferential access to those markets, blocking out North Dakota's high-quality crops.

Proposals like a 20 percent tax on Mexican imports to the U.S., which the administration floated in January, should worry any North Dakotan. Mexico would retaliate by ratcheting up taxes on American exports to Mexico, hurting farmers and ranchers whose bottom lines depend on exports. That kind of trade war is the last thing our agriculture-driven economy needs.

In the U.S. Senate, I've promoted the trade policies farmers and ranchers rely on. Earlier this year, I reintroduced my bipartisan bill with Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) to support good-paying American jobs by lifting restrictions on private financing for U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. It's a needed step, especially to support North Dakota edible bean and pulse growers, but there's even more we can do to support agricultural exports.

This spring, Doyle will plant his family's 119th crop. It's a testament to his hard work and the efforts of three generations of family farmers before him. Their work has helped our state feed the world, and made it possible for rural America to stay vibrant for years to come.

Doyle's story is similar to so many others across our state. During this Congress and going into Farm Bill negotiations, I'll continue pushing this administration to understand how its policies—particularly on trade—could impact Doyle and all of North Dakota's producers.

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