Farmers across the state are in the middle of a busy seeding, haying, and fast approaching harvest season. Most years our worries focus on weather, markets, and workload, but this year another concern is in the forefront: trade. Just as many farmers feared, our most important trading partners have threatened to retaliate against America’s agriculture goods due to the escalating trade war, and rural America’s desire for a modernized North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is nowhere in sight.
As a fourth generation farmer, I always appreciated the importance of our trading relationships and the positive economic benefits they help create. However, recent trade uncertainties are sowing havoc to farmers’ financial planning. America’s farm communities cannot afford the inevitable loss of jobs and incomes that would result from severing ties to markets that make up a significant share of incomes.
It is time that the United States prevents increased economic uncertainty in the farm economy from tariff policies and focus on promptly closing a deal on a modernized NAFTA. Finalizing NAFTA provides our export partners the stability they desire and preserves the markets our rural economies depend on.
For over 24 years, the United States has benefitted from the supply chain that NAFTA helped build between our farmlands and Mexican and Canadian dinner tables. Since going into effect in 1994, the agreement has increased trade with our North American partners by a collective 450 percent and helps to boost the U.S. economy by $127 billion annually.
Montana exports like barley are able to enter these markets duty-free thanks to NAFTA. Lowering tariffs and other barriers make Montana’s exports attractive for our NAFTA partners, helping to put money back into our farms and generate economic growth in our towns. In the two decades since NAFTA was signed Mexico has developed into Montana’s top barley market. Montana farmers produced and exported 4.6 million bushels of barley to Mexico in 2016.
Agriculture is the top economic engine for our state. Agriculture allows us to sustain our rural economies and keep our small town main streets thriving. Trade with foreign markets is a key reason for that. Montanans export $1.2 billion in home-grown products, with $565 million from wheat exports alone. Our agricultural export economy provides enormous benefits here at home by helping promote 12 thousand Montana jobs.
Montana farmers are proud of the high-quality products we produce and the subsequent demand for them in countries across the globe. But the impasse surrounding trade threatens to unravel our state’s agriculture industry and casts a shadow over rural communities who rely on foreign markets as a significant source of income.
Tariffs and prolonged NAFTA negotiations are already rattling rural communities, and our most important markets are starting to doubt America’s trade reliability. Increasingly, our partners look to South America and Europe to by agriculture products. Rural farmers and communities still recovering from a decade of declining jobs and incomes cannot afford losing access to these markets.
When President Trump ran for office, rural areas were still recovering from a decade of depressed economies and slow growth. With all but six of Montana’s 56 counties turning out in support of his candidacy for office, President Trump’s campaign message of growing our economy and putting America first resonated with Montana voters. Tax relief goes a long way in providing income security and putting money back into the pockets of our farmers and families who need it the most. But adding tariffs on our goods and prolonging the uncertainty surrounding NAFTA threaten to unravel the gains from these policies and throw us back into financial heartache.
Agriculture is my passion, my career, and my dream. Every decision we make is made with the expectation that we will improve upon our operation, better ourselves, the land and ensure we can pass on the farm to our little boys. We must maintain and expand our key export markets to ensure a successful agricultural economy for the future generation. Finalizing NAFTA negotiations, returning certainty to ourselves and our customers is a win farmers deserve. It is a win our economy needs.
Michelle Erickson-Jones is a 4th generation farmer from South Central Montana, President of the Montana Grain Growers Association and on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Wheat Growers. Michelle joined Americans for Farmers & Families as a spokesperson to help the Trump administration understand the importance of NAFTA to rural communities.