Heitkamp urges produce industry to speak out on trade
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., on Wednesday urged the nation’s fruit and vegetable growers to be more outspoken on the impact of President Donald Trump’s trade policies on agriculture, although she never mentioned the president’s name.
“The biggest mistake we are making today is trade,” Heitkamp said in a breakfast speech to the United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Conference.
Heitkamp said she would tell the produce industry the same thing she tells school children: to remember the No. 5 because that’s the percentage of the world’s population that lives in the United States.
“Do you think you are going to be successful economically if we do not grow for that market?,” Heitkamp asked the group.
Fruit, vegetable and nut growers have been subjected to tariffs that other countries have imposed on U.S. farm products in retaliation for the tariffs that Trump has imposed on foreign steel and aluminum, but Heitkamp emphasized the impact of the retaliatory tariffs on North Dakota soybean exports.
North Dakota has gone 100 days without an order for soybeans from the Pacific Northwest, she said, explaining that the Chinese are turning to South America for some soybeans, but are also reducing the percentage of soybeans in their animal feed.
Heitkamp said she sometimes gets into trouble in populist North Dakota for saying “we have to think globally,” but that she will not stop because North Dakota agriculture, particularly soybeans, is so dependent on export markets.
Heitkamp said she sees many “phony barriers” to U.S. farm exports, but that the United States needs to be “surgical” in dealing with China.
If the United States wanted to control China, she said, one of the best ways would have been to be a part of the Trans Pacific Partnership trading bloc from which Trump withdrew.
When Trump decided to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement officials thought “this was going to be easy,” but “none of this is easy,” she noted.
Now that it’s not certain that Trump can do a deal with just Mexico, she said, it will be “interesting” to see if a renegotiated NAFTA is legal without Canada, and added that congressional approval might be hard to get.
The steel and aluminum tariffs have hurt North Dakota, she said, because the state is the ninth most dependent on imported steel. It is important to the energy industry and for grain bins that farmers want to build, she said, because they need to store soybeans in hopes the prices will improve.
The gains that North Dakotans saw in the tax law that Republicans passed were overwhelmed in three months by the higher cost of steel, according to one constituent, she said.
Heitkamp pointed out that the government has collected $3.5 billion from the Trump tariffs and asked for support for her bill that would take the money “and give it to people who were hurt the most.”
In the only reference to her re-election race against Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., Heitkamp said the national press is paying more attention to the impact of trade on farmers because it is a political issue.
“Low soybean prices may have an effect in my race, but more importantly it has an effect on that farm family sitting across from me that can’t pay their loan,” Heitkamp said.
Some farmers say they can “wait it out, wait till next year,” Heitkamp said, but added she tells them “How long does it take to lose a market? It takes less than two years.”
Of the trade aid that the Trump administration has promised farmers, Heitkamp said, “You can subsidize the loss of markets, but if you have lost the market, that subsidy is not going to help us.”
Heitkamp said the farm bill needs to be passed, and that she is worried that overseas agricultural marketing programs won’t function after the bill expires on Sunday.
But an even greater challenge for agriculture, she said, is “not having a strong voice in trade policy.”
Heitkamp acknowledged that Democrats are often protectionist, particularly in the Rust Belt, but said she is not because her state is so dependent on exports.
Perhaps the greatest challenge, she said, is that Republicans are usually the strongest free-trade advocates.
If a Democratic president had proposed the policies that Trump has proposed, she said, “the traditional pushback would come from the Republican Party, but this is a Republican administration, so it is muted.”
“In what world would you assume a Republican administration would do this with trade?,” she asked.
“I can’t be the only person complaining about this. Sometimes I feel like I am,” she said.
“How many of you think we should grow only for the American market?,” Heitkamp asked the audience toward the end of her speech. After no one raised a hand, Heitkamp said, “We are headed there if we don’t raise our voices.”