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US Farmers Plow Through Uncertain Trade Environment

US Farmers Plow Through Uncertain Trade Environment
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It’s been a tough stretch for Illinois farmer Wendell Shauman. His costs for everything from fertilizer to seed have increased, but the price for his crops have not.

During the last four years, Shauman’s income has dropped, and he was hoping that ending the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba would give his bottom line a little boost.

“Cuba’s a logical market,” he explained to VOA on his farm in rural Kirkwood, Illinois. “Something that’s 90 miles away should be your market. Politics has had that thing tied up, probably since I was in high school.”

Politics will keep it tied up, for now, as President Donald Trump seeks to limit trade with Cuba, reversing President Barack Obama’s efforts to ease restrictions with the Caribbean island nation.

“Walking away from a Cuba market is just nonsense too,” says Shauman. “It’s a market that is in our backdoor, you want to take advantage of that.”

Shauman voted for Trump in the 2016 Presidential election. But like many voters living in rural communities, Shauman voted for Trump despite his stance against current U.S. trade agreements. While Shauman still supports the President, and understands how trade agreements can hurt American factory workers by sending jobs overseas, he is at odds with some of the administration’s trade policies.

“Never walk away from a trade deal, never walk away from a market,” says Shauman. “The last increase in price is going to be the guy who will come from someplace else around the world and buy my product and pay the freight to get it to his market. And the more of that we do, the higher the price is going to be. So trade is hugely important.”

“I think the positions of the current administration on trade has been a little bit of a yo-yo for most farmers,” Tamara Nelsen, Senior Director of Commodities for the Illinois Farm Bureau, told VOA. “Farmers don’t like to be told where they can sell food, so they have long been opponents to the embargo, or any embargo that includes food products. They believe the best way to change a government in a foreign country is to engage with them, not to take away their food.”

The Illinois Farm Bureau is one of a number of organizations critical of the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back trade with Cuba, but Nelsen admits it is a small market.

“It’s maybe 25, 30 million dollars a year, at best for a state like Illinois depending on what we are exporting in a given year.”

The Illinois Farm Bureau reports that income from U.S. corn and soy exports to Cuba reached an all-time high of $331 million in 2008, with Illinois representing about $66 million of that figure. However, by 2014 the U.S. total had dropped to $120 million, with Illinois receiving about $24 million of that total.

But Tamara Nelsen says trade with U.S. partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, involved much bigger numbers, and is a larger concern for farmers.

“Trade with Canada and Mexico for our agricultural exports have quadrupled since the signing of NAFTA.”

Which, says Nelsen, translates into about 35,000 jobs in Illinois. NAFTA partners are also the primary destination for Wendell Shauman’s crops.

“Mexico is our number one corn market now,” he told VOA. “You can’t walk away from that.”

Which is why he was relieved when the Trump administration announced it wanted to renegotiate – not abandon – NAFTA, something Illinois Farm Bureau’s Tamara Nelsen says could help the United States.

“NAFTA renegotiation is probably fine,” she explained. “Modernization of NAFTA really due to technology and some of the changing standards for health and sanitary requirements for animals or fruits and vegetable trade, or the use of technology to improve border crossings, that’s all going to be welcome changes to NAFTA, and it is far better than scrapping it completely or having the United States pull out. And if farmers can be engaged in helping the U.S. get a better NAFTA agreement, even for our rural friends and neighbors who work in manufacturing, we’re all for that.”

But Wendell Shauman wants to go a step further. He wants to see the United States join the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, the multi nation trade agreement President Trump officially withdrew the United States from earlier this year.

“That’s, in my mind, a huge mistake,” says Shauman. “If we get back into it, maybe we can salvage something.”

With his crops now planted, Wendell Shauman plays the waiting game - waiting to see what changes in NAFTA the Trump administration seeks, and how Mother Nature will either help or hinder his harvest – and ultimately his bottom line - later this year.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.