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USMCA delay has ag groups concerned

Agriculture interests, including several in fresh produce, are pushing for adoption of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, but the government shut down has caused its progress to slow.

Passing the USMCA is the “No.1 issue for us in Washington,” said Jim Bair, president and CEO of the U.S. Apple Association, which is one of many agriculture and business groups making up the USMCA Coalition.

“Our members are very united behind free trade,” Bair said, noting that the apple industry exports more than $1 billion worth of apples in a normal season, but this season, exports are down 30 percent due to various trade issues.

He said the apple association is hosting a Capitol Hill day in mid-March for more than 100 apple grower-shippers to meet with Senators and representatives about the importance of passing USMCA.

“It’s been a long time since the U.S. has passed a free trade agreement, so many in Congress have never voted on one and been on the record” about support for free trade, Bair said.

Dave Salmonsen, senior director for congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said coalition members hoped that the Trump Administration by early March would send the details of the USMCA to the International Trade Commission, who then would send it to Congress for an up or down vote.

But the government shutdown has delayed it until at least mid-April.

Salmonsen said Congress members are generally positive about the trade deal, but some have found faults with steel and aluminum tariffs, prescription drugs and labor and environmental issues that may keep it from being passed.

And not everyone in the produce industry supports USMCA, most notably, grower-shippers in the Southeast, who said foreign competition unfairly undercuts their market.

Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said “USMCA doesn’t address the issue that’s front and center for growers of fresh produce in the Southeast: harm suffered as a result of cheap Mexican produce flooding the U.S. market during our growing season. Family farms that have operated for generations are closing their doors because they can no longer compete in the marketplace. Without trade remedies, that will continue.”

She said FFVA has been working with members of Florida’s Congressional delegation to help grower-shippers’ concerns.

“Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Vern Buchanan and Al Lawson in January introduced the Defending Domestic Produce Production Act, which FFVA wholeheartedly supports,” Lochridge said. “The bill will provide critically needed trade relief for specialty crop producers in Florida and the Southeast. In the meantime, FFVA will continue working diligently and persistently with our delegation and the administration on solutions.”

Salmonsen said the North American Free Trade Agreement remains in place until USMCA or any other trade deal replaces it.

Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services