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Farmers wary of trade fight

A sizable majority of rural Americans backed Donald Trump's presidential bid, drawn to his calls to slash environmental rules, strengthen law enforcement and replace the federal health care law.

But last month, many of them struck a sour note after White House aides signalled that Trump would deliver on another signature vow by edging toward abandoning the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Trump's message that NAFTA was a job-killing disaster had never resonated much in rural America. NAFTA had widened access to Mexican and Canadian markets, boosting U.S. farm exports and benefiting many farmers.

"Mr. President, America's corn farmers helped elect you," Wesley Spurlock of the National Corn Growers Association warned in a statement. "Withdrawing from NAFTA would be disastrous for American agriculture."

Within hours, Trump softened his stance. He wouldn't actually dump NAFTA, he said. He'd first try to forge a more advantageous deal with Mexico and Canada — a move that formally began Thursday when his top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, announced the administration's intent to renegotiate NAFTA.

But NAFTA and other deals have been good for American farmers, who stand to lose if Trump ditches the pact or ignites a trade war. The United States has enjoyed a trade surplus in farm products since at least 1967, government data show. Last year, farm exports exceeded imports by $20.5 billion.

"You don't start off trade negotiations ... by picking fights with your trade partners that are completely unnecessary," says Aaron Lehman, a fifth-generation Iowa farmer who produces corn, soybeans, oats and hay.

NAFTA did lead some American manufacturers to move factories and jobs to Mexico. But since it took effect in 1994 and eased tariffs, annual farm exports to Mexico have jumped nearly five-fold to about $18 billion. Mexico is the No. 3 market for U.S. agriculture, notably corn, soybeans and pork.

The U.S. has run a surplus in farm trade with Mexico for 20 of the 23 years since NAFTA took effect. 



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