The policy issues under serious discussion in Washington, D.C. are many, but two in particular top the list of priorities for U.S. farmers – immigration and trade—according to Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). And while farm lobbyists watch those issues play out, hope is high that tax reform is on the way.
Thatcher was asked recently to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, the “uncertainty and nervousness” concerning potential changes to immigration policy and their effect on agriculture.
“We’re at a 10,” she said, referring to a report she received that local authorities had rounded up undocumented workers on one U.S. farm, in Michigan. “I think (on-farm enforcement) is starting with regularity across the country,” she said.
Amid stepped-up immigration actions in areas with heavy undocumented populations, the Trump administration has issued two Executive Orders clamping down on travel and immigration. Farm organizations like AFBF and the National Farmers Union (NFU) are analyzing the Executive Branch’s actions to weigh their potential impact on agriculture.
Farm Bureau and the NFU, often at odds ideologically, are in “lockstep” as they lobby lawmakers on the importance of immigrant labor to ag sectors such as dairy and fruit and vegetables, according to Zack Clark, government relations representative for NFU. Clark said the Trump administration has changed its approach to the issue.
“We initially thought there’d be an appreciation for the uniqueness of agriculture,” he said of the administration. “It seems (now) that’s not the case.”
All of agriculture should get the word out about the importance of immigrant labor to ag, Thatcher said. “For corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum farmers, it’s not exactly the biggest thing on your plate. But it’s incredibly important to dairy, the fruit and vegetable industry and others, so we can use all the help we can get,” she said.
President Donald Trump’s promised talks renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico are approaching. The 1,700-page pact is credited with quadrupling the value of U.S. food and ag exports to both countries since it took effect in 1994. “We don’t want to mess that up,” Thatcher said, citing reports some Mexican politicians are threatening to turn to U.S. rivals Brazil and Argentina for corn.
Clark believes those threats “are largely rhetoric because they just don’t have the capacity to deliver to Mexico,” which now gets most of its corn imports from the U.S. He also said the “America First” approach isn’t making it easier to get trading partners to the negotiating table.
“(They’re) getting mad, and they’re going to take it out on us, and we need to be prepared for that,” he said.
Once everyone gets to the negotiating table, the result isn’t clear. “When we come to the table and say, ‘We want x, y and z,’ then Canada will want at least three or four things and Mexico will want three or four things,” Thatcher said. “So while there might be some beneficiaries, there’s going to be some losers, too.”
Regarding the now-rejected Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant said there’s
an expectation bilateral deals will be the only path forward, but jokingly suggested the Trump administration could rename the existing deal, make a few changes and send it out again. “It could be a rebranded multilaterial (trade deal) in a different shape,” said Wyant.
The path to a possible repeal of the estate tax is clearer. “I think we’ve got as good a chance as we’ve had in, I don’t know, ever,” said Thatcher. “It’s all about tradeoffs. But I feel really positive we can make some real progress,” she said.
For its part, the NFU opposes an outright repeal, calling the estate tax a “tax on the less than 1%.
“There is a very, very small percentage of people who are impacted (by the estate tax), so we should keep that in mind,” Clark said.