Placeholder, NAFTA

Antsy and in hopes of a “first, do no harm” negotiation, Missouri lawmakers and farm producer groups spoke Tuesday about the importance of keeping intact the North American Free Trade Agreement … or something like it.

The Missouri affiliate of a new national coalition, Americans for Farmers and Families, has set a goal of ensuring that President Trump and his administration know the importance to agricultural interests of preserving and updating the trade pact.

“I think that we feel like, in Missouri, that the president’s intention is to turn this into a 21st century trade agreement and to renegotiate with improvements, versus pulling out,” said Casey Guernsey, a Harrison Countian and spokesman for Americans for Farmers and Families-Missouri.

President Trump urged during his campaign a renegotiation of NAFTA, a Clinton-era accord. In one of his first acts as president in January 2017, he signed an executive order to start that process.

“International trade certainly plays a very significant role in Missouri,” state Sen. Dan Hegeman, of Cosby, said in a lunch-hour conference call from the State Capitol in Jefferson City. “Sixty-four percent of our Missouri exports go to these free trade markets like Canada and Mexico.”

Hegeman, a Republican who represents constituents in 15 counties in Northwest Missouri, has sponsored legislation in the Senate urging Congress and the president to continue and strengthen NAFTA.

Rep. Sonya Anderson, a Springfield Republican, has filed a House companion bill.

Scott Hays, a member of the Missouri Pork Producers, said Mexico and Canada stand as the No. 2 and No. 4 export markets for U.S. pork products. In addition to that volume, the exports help American food buyers by bolstering the product mix.

“We export products that are not as desired in this country to countries where they are more desired,” Hays said. “That keeps the price of the products that we like, like bacon and ribs, affordable to the U.S. consumer.”

For dairy farmers, exports prove even more significant, with Mexico the top market and Canada number two. Dave Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association, said global competition remains stiff, with Australia, New Zealand and the European Community being big players.

“It would be a great blow to us for Mexico to seek alternatives sources for dairy other than the U.S., if NAFTA isn’t kept and expanded,” he said in the conference call.

Farm-state lawmakers in Washington have been anxiously watching the NAFTA renegotiation, knowing the economic well-being of constituents rides on a favorable deal being struck.

“Many Missourians’ livelihoods depend on the ability to sell their harvest, livestock and goods to Canada and Mexico, so it’s only logical they should be able to easily and effectively share their concerns and stories with the people negotiating our trade deals,” Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said in urging an outlet for agricultural producers to make their voices heard.

The Democratic senator said she worried that negotiators in Washington “may not fully understand how much damage a bad or broken deal could do to our farmers and ranchers.”

Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran has been a leading voice in urging the Trump administration to provide certainty to farmers and ranchers in his state, encouraging “modernization” of the treaty rather than withdrawal.

Along with a group of fellow Republican senators, he co-signed a letter to President Trump saying that a stronger NAFTA agreement would launch historic economic growth for the United States.

“Modernizing NAFTA to increase market access, expanding energy exports to maximize domestic energy production and including provisions on intellectual property and e-commerce will make this agreement even more beneficial to the United States,” the senators wrote.

Ken Newton can be reached at ken.newton@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.