Negotiators were in Montreal, Canada for the sixth round of talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement this week and Montana wheat and barley farmers paid close attention to the ongoing talks.
According to Michelle Erickson-Jones, president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, NAFTA has been one of the most important agreements overall for the United States and especially the wheat industry.
"U.S. wheat exports into Mexico have increased 400 percent since we signed the NAFTA agreement," Erickson-Jones said. "And we've also increased the amount of barley that they take in particularly out of Montana. Mexico is Montana's number one market for barley."
She said the trade agreement, which was signed into law in 1993, was significant then and still is now.
"It reduced a lot of technical barriers to trade that existed previously and just opened up that market and allowed a lot of grain to flow south," she said. "A lot of the infrastructure is built for U.S. wheat to readily flow into Mexico."
Others agree. Former Montana Senator and U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus is co-chair of Farmers for Free Trade and he said it’s not just farmers who will pay the price for NAFTA withdrawal.
“If it were repealed, I just think it would cause a huge disruption to our national economy and certainly for those of us who export a lot of products," Baucus said. "It’s everybody involved in agriculture. It’s implement dealers, it’s the elevators, and the economy of the county."
As for trade with Canada, U.S. wheat growers are at a disadvantage.
Erickson-Jones said the U.S. has a technical barrier to trade when shipping wheat to Canada.
"Any of our wheat headed into the Canadian market is graded at feed and priced at feed regardless of its quality and that's a problem we hope to resolve during the NAFTA negotiation," she said.
Like other trade agreements, there will be winners and losers in the NAFTA negotiations.
“Agriculture is almost always the first to be retaliated against when you get in trade wars," Erickson-Jones said. "That’s when people add tariffs because it’s easy to add tariffs and that has a huge effect on our nation’s economy and Montana’s economy."
Considering that 70 percent of Montana’s wheat is in fact exported elsewhere around the world, it’s easy to see why it’s so important that agriculture has a seat at the table as the renegotiation continues regarding NAFTA.
This week, organizations along the North American wheat value chain sent a letter to leaders in Canada, Mexico, and the United States stressing the importance of NAFTA to the entire North American wheat industry.