WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 2017 - President Donald Trump is back in Washington today after a two-day trip to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where he spent the weekend with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, playing golf and talking policy.
North Korea’s test launch of a ballistic missile on Sunday likely dominated the agenda, but farm groups here are hoping a warm relationship between the two leaders will eventually lead to a bilateral trade deal. It was generally seen as a loss for farm exports when the U.S. pulled out of the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a deal which would have slashed tariffs from Japan and other countries.
Most U.S. farm groups strenuously supported TPP, but it will be the North American Free Trade Agreement that will take the spotlight today as Trump greets Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House. Trump has said repeatedly that he wants to renegotiate NAFTA or pull the U.S. out of the 23-year-old trade pact with Canada and Mexico.
Trudeau has said publicly that he is willing to talk about rewriting NAFTA.
U.S. dairy seeks changes to trade relationship with Canada. While most U.S. farm groups are not anxious to renegotiate the U.S.-Mexico relationship under NAFTA, the dairy industry here would love to see big changes to Canadian restrictions on milk and cheese imports.
Michael Dykes, president of the International Dairy Foods Association, told Agri-Pulse that, if NAFTA is renegotiated, his group will work hard to push for increased exports to Canada.
“Right now we have far more trade with Mexico than we do with Canada,” Dykes said in an interview after speaking at a Washington International Trade Association (WITA) forum Thursday. “We have to be prepared for whatever happens.”
That uncertainty is pervasive in NAFTA watchers, who will be zeroed in today on how Trump and Trudeau get along and what the leaders have to say. One thing is certain: Those who depend on trade with Canada and Mexico are hoping Trump won’t decide to pull the U.S. out of NAFTA.
Without NAFTA in place, Mexico would likely reinstate a general 8 percent tariff on U.S. goods and a 20 percent tariff on U.S. agricultural products, said Uri Dadush, a senior fellow at the OCP Policy Center in Morocco. Dadush also spoke at the WITA forum.
“We see great benefits from NAFTA,” said Dykes, who stressed that U.S. milk exports to Mexico have quadrupled because of the trade pact.
Sen. Strange is welcomed to the Agriculture Committee. Alabama is keeping its representation on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Former Sen. Jeff Sessions, who was sworn in last week as Trump’s Attorney General, left an open seat on the committee, but it didn’t stay vacant long.
Luther Strange, former Alabama attorney general, was appointed to take Session’s Senate seat and sworn in Thursday. On Friday, Senate aides confirmed that Strange will also be taking Session’s seat on the Ag Committee.
“I welcome Senator Strange to the ag posse, whose home state represents valuable agriculture production,” Chairman Pat Roberts said. “We have a lot of work to get done as we begin writing a new Farm Bill, and we’ll need all hands on deck.”
Conaway encouraged by new Dems on committee. House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway says he was pleasantly surprised and “really impressed” that the new Democrats on his committee are interested in farm programs and commercial-scale agriculture. He said he feared they would be primarily interested in nutrition programs. 
“It looks like we have good production agriculture people on both sides” of the committee. Conaway was speaking at a news conference on the sidelines of the National Cotton Council’s annual meeting in Dallas this weekend. 
Conaway also tried to soften concerns that President Trump’s trade policies are going to disrupt the cotton industry, which is heavily reliant on foreign markets. “I think the campaign rhetoric won’t match up with what they do on the ground once his trade folks get in the field,” Conaway told reporters.
Cotton exports seen declining slightly this year. Cotton exports last year were stronger than expected thanks to increased demand from countries like Vietnam, but 2017 won’t likely be quite as good, according to a new analysis from Jody Campiche, a vice president at the National Cotton Council (NCC).
Campiche, who spoke Saturday at the NCC’s 79th Annual Meeting in Dallas, said U.S. exports are forecast at 12.4 million bales. That’s less than the 12.8 million bales in 2016, but last year saw a major spike in foreign sales despite a retreat in Chinese imports. U.S. cotton exports in 2016 were a 39 percent increase from 2015.
China is expected to continue auctioning off its reserve stocks this year and India is expected to be a major competitor, but Vietnam is buying more cotton from the U.S. than ever before, according to a recent USDA analysis.
Vietnam is importing record-levels of raw cotton for its yarn-spinning industry and U.S. farmers are benefitting from the increased business, the report concludes. About half of the 2.45 million bales Vietnam imported from August through January came from the U.S., according to the USDA report. In past years the U.S. provided about 40 percent of Vietnam’s imports.
He said it. “Just because we say America is a free market doesn’t mean it is a free market.” - Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, speaking to the National Cotton Council, trying to make the case that farmers need federal assistance because of regulations and other issues that make it difficult for growers to compete internationally. 
(Phil Brasher contributed to this story)