Young Leaders: Trade vital to success of agriculture

Discussion Meet finalists cite need to educate consumers, who often believe free-trade agreements export jobs instead of products and hurt American workers.

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Jesse Faber, second from left, accepts the Young Leader State Discussion Meet trophy from Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr.

By Dan Grant

Many young farmers are feeling the pinch of tighter margins caused by lower commodity prices in recent years, some for the first time in their careers.

And, with fairly mature markets in the U.S. and the majority of the world population located elsewhere, Illinois Farm Bureau Young Leaders believe trade remains the key to sustaining and growing farm income in the years ahead.

Finalists of the Young Leader State Discussion Meet analyzed how agriculture can overcome public skepticism of foreign markets to negotiate new trade agreements and open new world markets this week at the IFB Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Finalists included Gracelynn Dale (Bureau County), Jesse Faber (Livingston), Laura Meyer (Adams) and Sara Mitchell (Grundy).

The Discussion Meet finalists included, from left, Laura Meyer, Sara Mitchell, Gracelynn Dale and Jesse Faber.
The Discussion Meet finalists included, from left, Laura Meyer, Sara Mitchell, Gracelynn Dale and Jesse Faber.

“One of the things we have to remember is about 40 percent of (farm) income comes from trade,” said Faber, who won the state contest. “But we have a public perception issue.”

Related: Click here for more from the IFB Annual Meeting.

A key issue centers on the popular public perception that free-trade agreements export jobs instead of products and hurt American workers.

But that’s certainly not the case in agriculture. Nearly half of soybeans produced in the U.S. are exported, while trade adds about $290 per head to each beef cow and $48 per head for each hog raised here.

“Trade is what’s keeping us profitable in today’s environment,” said Mitchell, who was the runner-up in the contest. “And it’s to consumers’ advantage to have fresh foods (such as avocados) we can’t necessarily produce here year-round.”

But rather than negotiate additional free trade agreements, the U.S. this year withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership and initiated renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

“We’re at a time politically in which our leaders are talking about closing our borders,” Dale said. “We need to talk about how trade actually increases jobs. We’re talking transportation, food processing – (trade) creates jobs in our area.”

Meyer believes farmers must continue to communicate the importance of trade to their elected officials.

“We’re kind of getting caught in the middle of (NAFTA) negotiations,” she said. “We need to meet with our legislators and tell them what’s at stake.”

Meyer, along with Faber, who are both school teachers, believe the ag education process should start at a young age.

Faber, an ag teacher at Pontiac High School, estimates at least 90 percent of his students have no farm background. He recently took his class to view a unit train preparing to haul U.S. corn to Mexico.

“My students had no idea (Illinois ships corn to Mexico),” Faber said. “We have to start at the grassroots level. If we can’t communicate in our communities, how can we communicate with others.”

Dale noted experiences such as farm-to-fork events help educate the public about agriculture and food production and bring consumers in touch with farmers.

Meyer believes IFB and other ag organizations should increase social media training to help farmers communicate effectively with consumers in that arena. She noted a local television and radio campaign that educated consumers about ag issues in her area could be even more effective at the national level.

Young Leaders also suggested farmers and IFB continue to reach out to influencers (a 2017 priority), work to bridge gaps with other special interest groups and focus on food security around the world to communicate the importance of trade.

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