U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet took aim Friday at the Trump administration’s trade tactics, saying the recent tariffs imposed by the administration on trading partners all over the world are hurting Colorado agriculture.
“What Colorado agriculture needs is trade, not a trade war,” the Colorado Democrat told reporters Friday.
Bennet spoke to about 30 farmers and ranchers, many representing the state’s agriculture organizations, at Sakata Farms in Brighton on Friday. He first wanted to update the group on the status of what to his audience is the all-important farm bill, which passed U.S. Senate on June 28 on a strong bipartisan vote of 86-11 (Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., was also among the yes votes).
The group also weighed in on the Trump administration’s trade war and how it’s affecting Colorado agriculture. State Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown told the group that corn prices in Colorado have dropped 20 percent since the first of June. Wheat and soybean prices also have sharply declined since China put those products on its list for retaliatory tariffs.
“We support fair trade,” said Terry Fankhauser of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. The big challenge, he said, is growing international markets. Colorado cattle is going for about $300 per head but that value could easily double in the next 10 years, he said, with a free and open trade market. “You want agriculture to survive? Let us produce.”
The trade war is really starting to hit home, Fankhauser added. Producers are making decisions on the potential lack of trade, which will impact how they grow their businesses, who they partner with and investments, which are now starting to dry up.
“I sense it in every part of the state.”
Jim Ehrlich of the Colorado Potato Growers said his industry is the “poster child” for unfair trade. Potato growers have fought for years to expand their markets outside of Colorado, with Mexico as a prime target for that expansion.
Bennet relayed a recent conversation between U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and the Senate Finance Committee. Bennet pointed out how Colorado farmers and ranchers are being affected by the trade war. Lighthizer’s response? “You have my sympathy because they’ll be the first one retaliated against in a trade war.”
Since then, matters have gotten worse, Bennet said. “We should be joining with our partners in Mexico and Canada and Europe and insisting on a trade policy that makes sense. The Chinese are taking it out on our farmers and ranchers and will continue to do it.”
The good news out of Washington is that the 2018 farm bill has cleared the Senate. The bad is that a compromise with the House will be tough.
Bennet said the U.S. House has had a hard time with the farm bill’s food stamp program and immigration issues tied to the farm bill. He told reporters he’s “all for fixing our immigration issues, but (the House) has been doing drive-by attacks on the farm bill, which will never pass the Senate.”
Bennet said that a farm bill with 86 Senate votes should provide some momentum as the Senate and House work out a compromise version.
The clock is ticking, rapidly, toward a September deadline, when the current farm bill expires.
One of the major sticking points between the two chambers and the White House is what happens to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the food stamp program. Bennet and those at the forum Friday want to make sure the food stamp program remains a part of the farm bill.
“If you separate (SNAP from the farm bill), people won’t have any interest in whether the farm bill passes,” he said, adding that there aren’t 30 senators who will support the changes proposed by the Trump administration for the SNAP program. The Trump administration has demanded enhanced work requirements for SNAP recipients that one estimate says would negatively impact 7.5 million people on the program.
Colorado’s agriculture economy is one of the most important sectors in the state, Bennet said. Farmers and ranchers are struggling with low commodity prices, land prices, and drought, and added to it is the uncertainty created by the president’s trade policies. “That’s why the farm bill is so urgent: it gives farmers and ranchers predictability for the next five years,” he said.
Bennet has played a major role in amending the farm bill — one participant said his fingerprints are all over it — including improvements for soil health, wildfire protection, and most importantly, hemp. The 2018 farm bill legalizes hemp as an agricultural commodity for the first time, a provision that Bennet supported, as did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who sat in on the June 13 Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry hearing when the bill was amended.
The bill also provides support for young farmers, which won kudos from Dale McCall of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and Kate Greenberg of the National Young Farmers Coalition.
But it wasn’t all hearts and flowers and kudos. While the bill extends crop insurance, that’s only a backstop and not enough, said Dave Eckhardt of the Colorado Corn Growers Association. With falling commodity prices, farmers need a permanent disaster program in the farm bill that will help with drought, hail and wildfires, he said.
The House version, according to Joyce Kelly of the Pork Producer’s Council, had better funding for foot and mouth disease. It’s a national security issue, she said, but she also complimented Bennet for his work on the measure. “We know that we have someone in DC we can talk to on the ag industry,” she said.
Bennet’s strongest words were reserved for the trade policies and recent tariffs imposed by the Trump administration. The Senate passed a bill Thursday asking the President to undo the tariffs, which one participant called little more than a symbolic gesture.
China is an issue for the United States, Bennet said, but the United State also needs to build relationships with countries in the hemisphere — notably Mexico and Canada — and European countries, so that “we’re operating as a strategic bloc in these trade negotiations. It isn’t happening now. It’s basically the United States against everybody. The president says trade wars are good and easy to win. I don’t know anyone in Washington who believes that,” or anyone on any farm or ranch in Colorado. “All of the growth for our ag industry will come from overseas exports,” he said, and that means Asia.
“I believe the president has a unique negotiating style that may have worked from time to time for the New York commercial real estate market but it doesn’t work very well for the economy of the United States,” Bennet said.