Trade conference speakers: Free and fair trade crucial for Virginia farmers

businessBreaking down trade barriers to achieve free and fair trade is critical for Virginia—and U.S.—agriculture. That’s what several speakers told nearly 300 participants at the 10th annual Governor’s Conference on Agricultural Trade March 5.

The U.S. has focused internally and taken its eye off the global market, said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall. He told conference-goers that the U.S. share of global exports has dropped from 65 percent in the 1970s to 28 percent in 2017. “We need to turn our eyes back to the global markets and write new trade agreements,” Duvall noted. “Trade is one of those issues we’ve got to give it all we’ve got.”

He added that recently proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum have overshadowed discussions about the North American Free Trade Agreement. “When we put tariffs on things, agriculture gets the brunt of that.”

Ted McKinney, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs, said it’s time to modernize NAFTA. “It’s been a win-win for all three countries involved,” he said, but trade is a two-way street. “We want to make it as easy for people to bring in food as it is to export it.”

Gov. Ralph Northam added that he’s talked to the Canadian and Mexican ambassadors about “doing all we can” to keep NAFTA in place. “It would be devastating if NAFTA were to disappear.”

While Canada and Mexico are important trading partners for the U.S., McKinney said China is another important player. In four of the past five years China has been the nation’s largest export market. “If we’re after free and fair trade, we both need to step up and realize our mutual interdependence.”

Virginia agriculture and forestry exports totaled almost $3 billion in 2017, and more than 37 percent of container exports consisted of agriculture and forestry products, Northam noted.

“That’s why I’m committed to getting (those products) into the hands of more customers around the world,” he remarked. “We have to be sure access is open to these markets through free and fair trade agreements.”

One way to do that is by expanding the role of the Port of Virginia in Norfolk. Northam shared that the General Assembly recently approved funding for dredging the port’s channel to as much as 55 feet deep to accommodate larger ships.

Jim Perdue, chairman and CEO of Perdue Farms, said the Port of Virginia plays a critical role in his business. Perdue’s food exports through the port, he noted, have grown 11 percent over the past year.

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