Canadians come south to thaw NAFTA prospects

Canadian government officials emphasized the benefits of two-way trade with the United States at the AFBF convention, enough for some high-ranking USDA officials to call them out for a lack of progress on a new North American Free Trade Agreement.

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More than 500 Farm Bureau members from Illinois attended a breakfast during the AFBF Convention sponsored by COUNTRY Financial. (Photo by Mike Orso)

By Mike Orso

Some Canadians brought more than their frigid weather to the American Farm Bureau Federation Convention in Nashville as government officials repeatedly touted the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

“Trade is a two-way street; it goes both ways,” said Michael Hawkins, agriculture attache for the Embassy of Canada, during an Illinois Farm Bureau breakfast held at the AFBF meeting. “We can’t let anti-trade voices consume the debate.”

Hawkins, among close to 20 agricultural attaches from foreign countries attending the IFB breakfast, sponsored by COUNTRY Financial, told the group that anti-NAFTA rhetoric “is a dangerous trend.” He said farmers in Canada and the United States stand to lose if negotiations break down.

Canada’s Counsellor on Agriculture to the U.S., Michael Hawkins, spoke on behalf of nearly 20 fellow agricultural attaches that participated in an Illinois Farm Bureau breakfast during the AFBF Meeting. (Photo by Mike Orso)
Canada’s Counsellor on Agriculture to the U.S., Michael Hawkins, spoke on behalf of nearly 20 fellow agricultural attaches that participated in an Illinois Farm Bureau breakfast during the AFBF Meeting. (Photo by Mike Orso)

The heavy Canadian presence in Nashville irked some U.S. government officials who blamed them for not making more progress on NAFTA talks. Negotiators, including those from Mexico, return to the bargaining table in Montreal for a sixth round of talks on Jan. 23.

“For those of you who may see Minister (Lawrence) MacAulay going out, you might want to encourage him to get his negotiators engaged and get in the game,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue during his address before the convention. MacAulay, Canada’s minister of agriculture, spoke before the group and held a press conference at the AFBF event. 

Ted McKinney, left, USDA undersecretary of trade and foreign affairs, told farmers attending the AFBF Convention that dairy appears to be a sticking point with Canada in negotiations on a new NAFTA. (Photo courtesy of AFBF)
Ted McKinney, left, USDA undersecretary of trade and foreign affairs, told farmers attending the AFBF Convention that dairy appears to be a sticking point with Canada in negotiations on a new NAFTA. (Photo courtesy of AFBF)

During a workshop at the AFBF meeting, Perdue’s undersecretary of trade and foreign agricultural affairs compared NAFTA negotiations to sumo wrestling – with an extraordinary amount of political posturing in the ring.

“I’m a huge fan of our Canadian friends. I love Canada, but Canada, it is time to step forward,” said USDA’s Ted McKinney.

VIDEO: In addition to Canada’s ag attache addressing the IFB breakfast, Canada’s minister of agriculture met with IFB President Richard Guebert Jr. and other state Farm Bureau presidents during the AFBF Convention. See and hear Guebert’s reaction.

The USDA official told Farm Bureau members that dairy appears to be the biggest hang-up toward more progress on NAFTA with Canada. Last year, the country implemented a new class of milk that has virtually closed the border on American-made, ultra-filtered milk. McKinney said the issue has angered many U.S. dairy farmers.

“Dairy is the big deal,” said McKinney. “Every dairy organization has written, phoned or been in my office. It is the itch that needs to be scratched and the elephant in the room.”

Hawkins noted he has represented his country at the IFB breakfast for five years and that each year the weather has gotten colder at the AFBF convention. Temperatures hovered just above zero at the start of the meeting, rare for the Music City.

“We’d be happy to host you in Canada,” joked Hawkins to the more than 500 Farm Bureau members from Illinois in attendance.

RFD Radio’s DeLoss Jahnke and AFBF contributed to this story.

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