Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman held an hour-long town hall meeting Sunday at the AFBF annual meeting in San Diego, Calif.
Questions ranged from the potential of trade with Cuba to tax reform to what USDA could do to sway EPA to sack the waters of the U.S. rule.
Trade took up some of the conversation as Kevin Papp, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, asked about the importance of Trade Promotion Authority. Papp chairs the AFBF trade advisory committee.
Congress is kicking around the idea of passing Trade Promotion Authority for President Barack Obama, but there is no clear path at the moment showing any bill coming to the floor in either chamber.
Vilsack said it's hard to negotiate with other countries when they don't think the president has Trade Promotion Authority. The Obama administration is juggling the Trans-Pacific Partnership with South American and Asian countries, as well as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in Europe.
Without Trade Promotion Authority, Vilsack said trade negotiators are somewhat hamstrung, though they could negotiate a deal that hinges on Congress passing TPA.
The administration is concentrating to close the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would translate into a deal focusing on 40% of the global economy and a third of all trade. Vilsack noted there were still problems that needed to be resolved involving key trading partners such as Japan and Canada.
"If we conclude that agreement -- and it's going to require us to have willing partners on the other side -- a little more flexibility from Japan, for example, some life from the Canadians, at least in negotiations, to deal with dairy and rice, deal with pork and many other issues that are important, I think we can get enough votes from Congress to do Trade Promotion Authority and TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership)."
He added, "It's not going to be an easy lift."
On the European trade deal, Vilsack noted it would translate into the largest trade deal ever. But the secretary was less optimistic that 2015 can close the deal with the Europeans because of battles over biotechnology and geographical labeling restrictions that Europeans want to place on American food products. "There is a long, long, long way to go from my perspective with that discussion," Vilsack said.
The secretary also said agriculture "has a job to do" in convincing people that trade is positive. Too many people believe trade costs jobs, he said. "The facts are that trade creates jobs," he said. "The facts are that we have seen a significant expansion of agricultural opportunities because of free trade agreements, but in the minds of a lot of Americans, they equate plant closings and plants moving to other countries with free trade. So we have got to do a better job of showing that trade does create jobs."
Stallman noted that AFBF would show strong support in helping get Trade Promotion Authority and support for those larger trade deals.
In another trade issue, Ronnie Leimgruber, a farmer from Holtville, Calif., in the Imperial Valley asked Vilsack what he could do to end the port slowdown in Long Beach. Longshoremen there and along other California ports have been slowing down their work to show solidarity with longshoremen in Oregon and Washington State over a collective-bargaining agreement. Leimgruber told the secretary his sister's export company generally exports about 24 cargo containers of hay every day. Over the past few weeks, that has slowed down to about 15 and the slowdown is getting worse, he said. Leimgruber told the secretary that without the port moving goods efficiently, Asian buyers may turn to other countries to get their hay.
Leimgruber said in a brief interview that about a third of his hay production is exported.
"China has been a relatively small buyer. In the near future, we think they are going to be a big buyer, but currently Japan is the biggest buyer of our hay and hay products."
Vilsack told Leimgruber that he was aware of the problems and that a federal mediator had been brought in over the past few days to help resolve the situation. Leimgruber said he doesn't think the mediator is carrying a big enough stick to solve the problems.
"The West Coast ships a lot of stuff overseas," Leimgruber said. "Just because of the nature of our proximity, that's how we developed our business. But if the federal government won't come in and do anything and let those slowdowns happen, it's hard to manage those issues."
Chris Clayton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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