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Roberts met with Trump on crop insurance, trade as industry expresses concern

Eric Halverson, CEO of Black Gold Farms

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said July 13 he met 10 days ago with President Donald Trump on crop insurance, and the issue of agricultural trade also came up.

Of crop insurance, Roberts said, "I don't think we will have a problem with that." Trump's budget called for cutbacks and means tests for crop insurance. Farm groups and the crop insurance industry have said the proposed cuts would stop the program from functioning as a reliable safety net.

Roberts talked briefly about his meeting with Trump near the end of a committee hearing on organics, specialty crops and local markets.

Roberts said he was glad Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson convinced Trump not to "terminate" the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"That must have been some meeting," Roberts said.

Roberts said he is "confident" Trump understands the concern about trade, although he added the possibility of U.S. tariffs on imported steel worries him.

Witnesses at the hearing included representatives of the meat and potato industries who use the agricultural export promotion programs the Trump budget would eliminate.

Roberts noted the 39 programs from the 2014 farm bill that do not have a baseline after fiscal year 2018 include the Foreign Market Development program and the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops program.

He asked the witnesses what they would say to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who developed the budget request that called for elimination of the Market Access Program (MAP) and the Foreign Market Development Program (FMD).

Eric Halverson, CEO of Black Gold Farms based in Grand Forks, N.D., said the export programs help American farmers "get a toe in the door" of other countries.

He also said margins are not big enough in agriculture for farmers to travel to foreign markets on their own.

Halverson also told Roberts the Market Access Program, which is used to sell U.S. specialty crop products, is important because "specialty crops don't get the focus our commodity crop friends do."

Greg Hanes, an Iowa producer representing the U.S. Meat Export Federation, said he would point out to Mulvaney 90 percent of potential customers for U.S. farm products live outside the United States, and exports create jobs in rural America.

Hanes also said as politics have shifted, the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development Program have been the "bedrock" of U.S. agriculture's relationship with foreign markets. Hanes also noted the 11 countries remaining in the Trans-Pacific Partnership are continuing to negotiate.

"We can't afford to be left out," Hanes said.

The hearing was also marked by statements of concern about Trump's withdrawal from the TPP agreement and the upcoming NAFTA renegotiation.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she believes Trump's decision to "walk away" from the TPP gave the European Union an "excellent chance to move into the Japanese market" through the EU-Japan agreement announced recently. That agreement affected the U.S. pork industry and other ag products, she said.

Heitkamp asked Halverson what trading partners are telling him, and he replied that importers said the United States grows "a great potato." But if the price is higher due to tariffs or other trade factors "we get resistance."

Heitkamp said she worries one-to-one relationships American farmers have developed with foreign buyers will be lost if the export promotion programs are eliminated.

Kenneth Dallmier, president and chief operating office of the Clarkson Grain Company in Cerro Gordo, Ill., said the United States exports organic corn chips to Mexico, but he fears Mexico will look to South America for its supplies. Trade conflicts, he said, could hurt the "brand recognition" of U.S. certified organic products.

In response to a question from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., about the impact of the Trump administration's pull-back from Cuba, Dallmier said the organic industry is interested in "all trading partners."

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the Trump administration needs to be "careful" about its NAFTA renegotiation.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she "firmly believed in TPP" for agriculture and she sees trade as a national security issue.

If the United States is not participating in trade in Asia, "China will step in," Ernst said.

In what might be considered a twist on political correctness in the Trump era, Roberts said it is now better to refer to trade with "the Pacific Rim countries" rather than to TPP.