Politics & Government

US allies threaten tobacco and pork products – a blow to NC farmers

A News & Observer file photo shows hogs on Brandon Howard's farm near Richlands, NC, in 2003.
A News & Observer file photo shows hogs on Brandon Howard's farm near Richlands, NC, in 2003. cseward@newsobserver.com

North Carolina pork producers and tobacco farmers could feel a big hit from the back-and-forth trade threats being issued by the United States and trading partners across the globe, including Mexico, Canada, China and the European Union.

The Trump administration announced this week that it would implement tariffs on aluminum and steel products from Mexico, Canada and the EU on Friday. Also this week, Trump renewed his threat to place tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese products.

Those nations announced retaliatory measures Thursday, including threats to levy tariffs on tobacco and pork products.

The state's pork producers export 25 percent of their product, said Andy Curliss, CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council. Mexico and Canada account for half of those exports. Curliss said in an email that it's hard to know the impact of the trade sparring at this moment.

"But Mexico is an important customer. Actions that hinder that trade have the real potential to cause significant financial pain to North Carolina farmers and to the economy in North Carolina," he wrote.

Mexico, China and Canada are three of the top four countries for American pork exports, according to the National Pork Board. The U.S. shipped 1.5 billion pounds of pork products to Mexico, the largest export market, and nearly $800 million to Canada, which is No. 4, according to the National Pork Producers Council.

"Those countries are important customers for us. If it comes to pass and if it really happens, it could be devastating for the North Carolina pork industry," said Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau.

The European Union produced a 10-page list of products it would retaliate against, if the U.S. imposes the tariffs. Among the products: tobacco in all forms — cigars, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, water-pipe tobacco and smoking tobacco. The state grows about 50 percent of the nation's tobacco and exports about 75 percent of what it grows, Wooten said.

"Anything that impacts exports of tobacco really impacts North Carolina," Wooten said.

Trump campaigned for president on making tougher trade agreements with countries around the world, arguing that previous trade deals were "unfair." He has long contended that the trade deals were bad for America, dating back to at least the late 1980s when he criticized President Ronald Reagan. Just months after taking office, Trump signed an executive order calling for a comprehensive review of all trade agreements.

Trump has made a special place for steel and aluminum, calling the lack of domestic production a national defense issue.

"Our Steel and Aluminum industries (and many others) have been decimated by decades of unfair trade and bad policy with countries from around the world. We must not let our country, companies and workers be taken advantage of any longer. We want free, fair and SMART TRADE!" Trump tweeted in March.

But Rep. Alma Adams, a Charlotte Democrat and a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said Trump's trade policies are "impulsive" and "will have a catastrophic impact on our economy."

"North Carolina farmers are still reeling from the announcement of retaliatory pork tariffs from China and now their businesses will be hit hard again as they face similar retaliatory tariffs from Mexico and the European Union. President Trump owes the American people an explanation of his long-term economic agenda and the impact that it will have on their jobs and businesses here at home," Adams said.

Americans for Farmers & Families said the decision to levy tariffs on steel and aluminum products from Canada and Mexico "puts the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in jeopardy" and urged the Trump administration to reverse its decision.

"The facts are clear: Sweeping tariffs in any sector result in retaliatory measures that make it significantly harder for farmers to sell their homegrown goods to customers around the world. With farm income at a 12-year low, American farmers need a win now more than ever. Unfortunately, these latest tariffs will do just the opposite," said Casey Guernsey, a former Missouri state legislator and spokesman for AFF’s "Retaliation Hurts Rural Families" initiative.

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Wooten said North Carolina farmers are counting on the congressional delegation and friends in the administration to help.

"We're watching and working with our delegation to say, 'Hey, don't forget about the impact on agriculture,'" he said.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, said he met with Trump three weeks ago to express his opposition to the aluminum and steel tariffs. While complimenting Trump's negotiating skills, Isakson worried that in actually going through with tariffs, "the results can be damaging."

"Nobody has shown me yet how the endgame works. In the past tariffs like this have not worked well," he said.

He is not the only Republican to push back against tariffs from the Trump administration.

A group of eight Republican senators, including all four from North Carolina and South Carolina, sent a letter to Trump administration officials in May asking them to exempt certain solar panels from tariffs imposed on solar products. North Carolina has more than 7,600 solar jobs in the state, according to a statement from Sen. Thom Tillis' office.

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; Twitter: @MurphinDC