Heidi Heitkamp: Smart policy needed to aid farmers
By Heidi Heitkamp In North Dakota, we know how important agriculture is -- we live and breathe it. Our families and neighbors work on combines before sunrise, prep for late planting seasons, monitor daily commodity price shifts, and make calls to...
By Heidi Heitkamp
In North Dakota, we know how important agriculture is - we live and breathe it. Our families and neighbors work on combines before sunrise, prep for late planting seasons, monitor daily commodity price shifts, and make calls to get products to market. But low commodity prices, drought, and other challenges have hurt farmers in recent years, and farm income has plummeted. So it's no surprise that the number one concern I'm hearing these days is worry about our agriculture economy, and how our trade policies could threaten the livelihoods of our farmers and ranchers.
At this challenging time, I'm fighting in every way possible to support farmers as they try to make ends meet and feed America. But despite all of the headwinds they are facing, the administration's trade policies threaten to make the obstacles even harder to overcome.
Farmers and ranchers don't need a trade war - they need greater access to international markets to sell their goods. But the tariffs proposed by the administration on a variety of Chinese products - and China's retaliatory tariffs of American soybeans, corn, wheat, sorghum, and beef - threaten to directly harm North Dakota agriculture producers and our manufacturers.
Tariffs are like a wrecking ball to our trading partnerships - they do a lot of damage, and they can do harm in unpredictable ways. The proposed tariffs on Chinese goods, for instance, have triggered retaliatory action that could be crippling for North Dakota soybean farmers, who export 71 percent of their product to Asia, primarily China. If our soybean farmers lose access to China, countries like Argentina are waiting in the wings to take our market share, and there's no easy way to get that market share back once we lose it.
There's no question China has been cheating on trade, but tariffs are a primitive and blunt instrument that are inadequate to deal with the complexity of the problem. North Dakotans are trade sophisticated people - we know that solutions to trade imbalances happen at the negotiating table, and that we should be working harder at trade enforcement to rein in China's actions and create a level playing field for American farmers, ranchers, and manufacturers.
Additionally, North Dakota is a state that has benefited greatly from increased trade with Canada and Mexico, our NAFTA partners. 88 percent of our beef exports, 95 percent of our corn exports, and 100 percent of our poultry exports go to Canada and Mexico. But if the administration pulls out of the agreement - as the president at times threatens to do - or alters it in a way that disrupts trade with these partners, our agriculture producers would take a huge financial hit.
The president's language matters - it affects the markets which farmers look at every day and it impacts our trade relationships with other countries. Even the threat of withdrawal from NAFTA or implementing tariffs is having an impact.
I've long been a supporter of trade that helps North Dakota's economy grow, from leading the charge to have a fully functioning Export-Import Bank, to pushing for strong trade promotion programs in the Farm Bill, to advocating for policies that open new markets like Cuba to North Dakota farmers. In regular meetings and conversations with the administration, including with U.S. Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, I emphatically emphasize the need for smart policies and for the administration to follow the golden rule when it comes to trade: first, do no harm.
Ninety-five percent of the world's consumers live outside the U.S., so when the U.S. isolates itself, it denies producers access to customers. The heated rhetoric on NAFTA and knee-jerk tariff proposals would do harm North Dakota's farmers and ranchers - and some are already feeling the effects. Action to take away these markets for farmers and ranchers would be even worse. So I won't lower my voice or stop fighting to protect our agriculture economy and the jobs it supports across rural America.
Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.