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ND ag groups discuss trade at Mexican embassy

Representatives from North Dakota ag groups had breakfast and discussed trade at the Mexican embassy in Washington, D.C., on June 6, 2018.

WASHINGTON — A group of North Dakota farmers and ranchers had breakfast at the Mexican embassy on Wednesday, June 6, to further trade relationships and to assure the Mexican ambassador that the state and the country remain committed to trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The meeting, organized by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, included the following representatives from North Dakota agriculture groups:

  • Steve Edwardson, executive administrator of the North Dakota Barley Council;
  • Dan Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association;
  • Mark Seastrand, board member of the North Dakota Barley Council;
  • Jeff Mertz, president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association;
  • Carson Klosterman, president of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association;
  • Jay Doan, with the North Dakota Stockmen's Association; and
  • Jim Callan, policy advisor with the North Dakota Corn Growers Association.

Heitkamp said conversations at the meeting reflected the importance of the Mexican market for many North Dakota ag products. Specifically, she said, they talked about North Dakota barley, which goes to Mexico for Constellation Brands, the company that brews Corona. They also talked about the emerging market in Mexico for U.S. edible beans, about general trade concerns for wheat growers and about the specialty cut market for U.S. beef.

Heitkamp called the meeting "wildly successful."

"The ambassador laid out a pretty compelling case for why they want to continue to trade," she said.

Mertz found the Mexican ambassador, Gerónimo Gutiérrez, to be articulate and accommodating, and he found the morning event to be more substantive and less of the "smoke and mirrors" that often constitute such political conversations.

"He knows the importance of free trade and conveyed that to us," he said.

Mertz said the back-and-forth nature of trade makes free trade important to both countries. Barley from North Dakota and other U.S. states goes to Mexico, and Corona beer comes back, just as parts for manufacturing may flow among the three North American countries.

"It's very crucial for American farmers," Mertz said.

He added that the North Dakota producers at the event made their case for continuing business with Mexico, and Gutiérrez, along with Mexico's NAFTA negotiators, expressed support for continuing the agreement to ensure a constant, stable food supply for Mexico.

The breakfast came at a time of continuing tensions over the renegotiation of NAFTA. Trump administration officials have brought up the possibility of the U.S. dealing bilaterally with Canada and Mexico, and Mexico has announced tariffs on a range of U.S. products in retaliation for tariffs on Mexican steel and aluminum that President Donald Trump announced last week.

Heitkamp said when heated conversations happen behind closed doors, often the people in the negotiating rooms forget there are people outside the walls relying on what happens within. Continuing to foster relationships with foreign markets is important.

"I think any amount of goodwill we can interject into that process is a good step forward," she said.

Although much of trade talks revolve around trade agreements, tariffs and trade law, Heitkamp said meeting people and talking about what the U.S. has to offer is just as important.

"At the end of the day, a big part of trade is trade relationships," she said.

Heitkamp added she's been meeting regularly with Gutiérrez, as well as with business leaders in Mexico to reassure them of the commitment of the U.S. and North Dakota, in particular, to NAFTA.

"Ag is a huge part of our export markets out of North Dakota," she said.

Mertz said trade continues to be a big issue for agriculture in general. He would like to see the U.S. rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership and wrap up the NAFTA renegotiation. But while he and others in ag may not agree fully with Trump's view on trade, he said many still support the president's methods and hope it pays off in the long run.

"You're not going to agree with an individual 100 percent of the time," he said.

The Wednesday meeting, Heitkamp said, was an opportunity to let producers tell the story of North Dakota agriculture and the importance of trade.

"I was so proud of our North Dakota producers," she said. "They sold North Dakota like no one can."