Wednesday, June 06, 2018

USDA trade undersecretary asks farmers to be patient as Trump administration tries to stop U.S. from 'gettin' screwed'

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- American farmers worried about trade disputes with major trading partners need to be patient as the Trump administration tries to correct longstanding problems in trade relations, the agriculture undersecretary for trade told a diverse group of agribusiness people in Kentucky on June 6.

McKinney greeted attendees after a question-and-answer session.
"We're gonna have to strap ourselves in," Ted McKinney said. "Keep your seat belt buckled. With China, you might bring your shoulder straps over and click it twice." Earlier, he said some Chinese promises on trade have "fizzled" but the Chinese were recently responsive to U.S. requests to allow beef imports.

McKinney's line about straps was in reply to a question from Scott Travis, a Kentucky grain, cattle and tobacco farmer. Travis told McKinney he had more optimism after hearing him speak, but told him that farmers' profit margins are so small, "One year can kill a farm. . . . Some of us are going to suffer from the time it's gonna take."

McKinney said the administration is ready to help "take the rough edge off . . . if it gets to the point that we're really seeing farmers hurt." The administration hasn't said much about what McKinney called its "mitigation strategy," but he said the Agriculture Department helped pay the legal bills of some farmers hurt by China's 178.6 percent tariff on U.S. sorghum in April.

McKinney's main message to an important part of President Trump's political base was that many non-tariff issues need to be resolved first. "The status quo, we cannot sustain," he said. "We've been gettin' screwed for years." As an example, he cited the inability to export certain genetically modified soybeans to China because that country has delayed approving the beans. "That pisses me off." He also mentioned bans on certain meats and theft of intellectual property.

"We've got to go through this turbulence to right-size this thing," McKinney added later. "All I can say is, hang with us a little bit and see what we can get done." He noted that Trump has said he would not let agriculture "be the tip of the spear and suffer the consequences" of trade disputes.

McKinney answered questions for 80 minutes at Lexington's Keeneland Race Course, the first 45 from Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, the next 30 from people in agriculture and the last 5 from reporters.

At the start, he said he suspected there was much anxiety in the room because of tariffs Trump had imposed on Canadian and Mexican goods and retaliatory tariffs those countries slapped on some U.S. agricultural products in recent days. He said he knows from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Vice President Mike Pence, who as Indiana governor bossed McKinney as state agricultural director, that Trump "has our back. . . . We're gonna have to be patient."

McKinney told reporters that he has not met with Trump, and that a meeting they were supposed to have shortly before the inauguration was scrubbed because Trump was "pulled away on something." In response to questions, McKinney said he would like some face time with the president, and said face-to-face relationships are more important to Trump than previous presidents.

"He values the gut instinct, and there's not a lot wrong with that," McKinney said. "The good news is, I think he has very high regard for Secretary Perdue. We see that, we feel it and hear it."

In the initial dialogue, McKinney said he is eager to pursue one-on-one trade agreements with many countries, but that process mist await renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Reflecting a recent Trump tweet, he said NAFTA might be replaced by bilateral agreements with Canada and Mexico. Asked later how which outcome was more likely, he replied, "The honest answer is, I don't know. We probably need to watch our Twitter feed every morning, 'cause it might change. Either one would work, and I'm for whichever gets us there the fastest." Earlier, he said, "There is so much trade between our countries that I think it will end up OK."

In response to a question about immigration, from a farmer who said agriculture is "in dire need" of foreign workers, McKinney said, "That is so deep into the political quagmire that something's got to happen. . . . The pendulum has to swing a little more, no matter how painful that might be."

Asked later to explain that, he said agriculture has done all it can to get relief on immigration, so "the natural momentum of things says it's got to continue a little bit more." He said it should help that the U.S. now has more job openings that unemployed workers, for the first time in the 18 years the government has tracked job openings, which voids the argument that "every job you give to an immigrant takes a job away from an American. I don't think that holds water anymore."

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