Farmers need trade exports

Rice farmer Don Bransford looks over a field planted in early May east of Williams in Colusa County.
Rice farmer Don Bransford looks over a field planted in early May east of Williams in Colusa County.

Farming is a risky business, one dependent upon Mother Nature and worsened this year by the parched earth throughout the western United States.

Exporting products to eager foreign markets allow farmers to soften those risks. In the years farmers produce a large crop, they sell first in the United States and the rest to buyers in other countries. In some years, the export market may be the only hedge between profit and loss.

But foreign trade is often an uneven playing field for U.S. farmers. We need trade agreements to level that field, but the biggest and most helpful one – the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership – is in jeopardy in Congress.

“Fast-track” authority – which passed the Senate on May 19 and is scheduled for a House vote on Friday – will help finalize this treaty. Granting trade promotion authority would enable the Obama administration to negotiate a Pacific trade deal that Congress can approve or disapprove but cannot amend.

The prospects of small and large American businesses are at stake, including West Coast farmers who hope the Trans-Pacific Partnership is concluded before the end of the year. Failing that, “fast-track” authority would probably be put on hold until the next president – a tragic failure of policy.

Trade promotion authority is not really complicated. It is akin to homeowners engaging general contractors to remodel their homes in place of having to deal and negotiate with all the subcontractors themselves. It’s easier and smarter for a president to act as the general contractor while Congress (the homeowner) maintains the ability to make a final yes-or-no decision. It gives our foreign trade partners reasonable assurances that a negotiated deal will stand. Without it, no country would be willing to make the toughest concessions for fear that Congress might demand more.

For decades, California has helped feed the world, exporting more than $20 billion in agricultural products in 2014 alone. Some have argued that while our state faces a water crisis, we should not be exporting, but this position is without merit. If we take into account all of the agricultural products our state produces and compare that with what we import, California is actually a net importer of “virtual” water.

Further, the United States faces a trade deficit in the produce sector. Without expanded export opportunities, the balance of trade will only get worse. Add to that the fact that California possesses prime soil, one of the best growing climates in the world, as well as proximity to transportation and farming expertise. This gives California the unique ability – and I emphasize unique – to produce a large quantity of quality food and fiber with efficiency and skill. It is for very good reason that California is the No. 1 agriculture state in America.

Congress can do many things, but magically ending the drought is not one of them. This year, however, it can remove obstacles to American businesses and their workers by passing trade promotion authority and allowing them to produce all the goods they can for others throughout the world.

Tom Nassif of Irvine is president & CEO of Western Growers, a trade association representing growers, shippers and packers of fresh produce and tree nuts from California, Arizona and Colorado.