While Washington’s agricultural industry is doing well overall, the director of the state Department of Agriculture said the Trump administration’s trade policies are a concern.
One of President Donald Trump’s first executive orders was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free-trade pact. Calling the TPP “a bad deal,” Trump said he wants to negotiate with individual nations instead.
But state ag department Director Derek Sandison said the action opens the door for China to step into the Pacific Rim trading arena, potentially squeezing the United States out.
“I always fear the creation of a vacuum. Something’s going to fill it,” Sandison said Tuesday at Central Washington University’s annual Economic Outlook Conference.
Sandison also said he hopes Congress and the administration can work out an immigration policy to keep foreign farm workers coming to the state’s farms, orchards and fields.
With 300 kinds of crops, from apples to hops to hay, the state exports $7.7 billion in agricultural products annually, he said.
“Probably only California has a more diverse agricultural industry than Washington,” Sandison said.
Probably only California has a more diverse agricultural industry than Washington.
Derek Sandison, Washington agriculture department director
That diverse mix allows the industry to weather shifts in agricultural markets or weather-related problems. For instance, Sandison pointed out that producers’ prices for milk and wheat were down in 2015 due to oversupply and drought affected wheat quality, while eggs were up almost 90 percent because Midwestern chicken farmers killed off their flocks due to an avian flu outbreak.
But trade issues could cause problems for ag producers, and the industries that depend on them.
In addition to Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP, the president also wants to renegotiate the Clinton-era North American Free Trade Agreement, a trade pact between the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Rescinding NAFTA could trigger tariffs, particularly from Mexico, and that would reduce Washington exports, said Washington State Potato Commission associate director Matthew Harris, who also spoke at the conference.
Trump is also involving the U.S. Commerce Department in the negotiations, a task usually performed by U.S. trade representatives, Sandison said.
Ag industries are also struggling to find domestic workers willing to perform the hard labor required on farms and orchards, Sandison said.
The current system for bringing in foreign workers can be cumbersome, as employers have to demonstrate that there are no available American workers who can take the jobs, Sandison said. “We’re hoping for some meaningful immigration reform,” Sandison said.
Other issues facing agriculture, he said are preserving farmland as population increases and better using technology to make farms more efficient.