WORTHINGTON - With tariffs and trade on the minds of American farmers, a contingent of producers joined Minnesota Department of Agriculture officials and U.S. Department of Agriculture leaders last week in Bogota, Colombia for what was the nation’s largest international trade mission.

Bill Gordon, a rural Worthington farmer and current vice president of the American Soybean Association, joined representatives from 54 agribusinesses and associations and six state departments of agriculture in Colombia. The MDA contingent then travelled to Peru, while the USDA group visited Panama. The South American countries have free trade agreements with the United States and continue to purchase U.S. agricultural products.

Gordon said the focus of the trade mission was to maintain the flow of ag commodities to the countries, with the hope of increasing sales.

“Because it’s a trade agreement, we were also down there to help them find products that they are good at raising and ship back to have a balance,” Gordon said earlier this week.

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen organized the trade mission trip to promote Minnesota-grown products including corn, soybeans, pork, beef and poultry.

“We found out in Peru that we have an advantage in soybeans for their soybean crush, but now we’re at a disadvantage, price-wise, for corn,” Gordon said. “For the last 10 years we’ve dominated their corn market. Now, Argentina has undercut us by $20 a ton, and they’re moving all of their corn purchases to Argentina.”

In Columbia, the Minnesota group joined the USDA contingent to meet with a representative from that country’s fat and oil importers association. Through their conversations, it was learned that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been speaking against unhealthy fats and sugars - as he did while in office - but Colombians, without the same access to news and social media, don’t have the information to rebut it, Gordon said.

“This propaganda is starting to drive policy in the country because of public fear that anytime you eat fat, or anytime you eat sugar, you’re going to die,” he said. “We offered a trade mission to have their Congress come back to the United States and look at our high oleic soybean oil market like Brewster (processes) and Fairmont, and show that soybean oil is a lot healthier oil than the palm oil … they’re importing. Palm oil is very high in saturated fat.”

Also in Colombia, the group met with the Chamber of Commerce to work through some trade issues.

Fear of tariffs

U.S. farm and food exports to Colombia reached a record $2.9 billion last year, with 100% of Colombia’s soybean imports, 97% of corn imports, and 91% of pork and pork product imports coming from the U.S. The two countries have had a free trade agreement in place since 2012.

Meanwhile, the U.S. signed a free trade agreement with Peru a decade ago. U.S. exports to Peru continue to set records, and were valued at $1.4 billion in 2018.

However, both countries fear U.S. President Donald Trump is going to come in and change the rules midstream, Gordon shared. Both countries have very high exports of cocaine, and as such, Trump could decide to delist them as trading partners. If that happens, American farmers would lose their agricultural markets to those countries.

“We have very similar fears that (Trump) could come in at any point and change what’s going on,” Gordon said.

Thus far, Trump’s ending of trade agreements and implementation of tariffs has proved to be a market disruptor.

“We need to keep working through these trade agreements,” Gordon said, specifically noting China. “We need to get a trade agreement done that benefits both (countries) and get rid of the tariffs.

“We feel as American farmers that we can compete with anybody on quality and usually price, so let us have a fair trade market in and out and we’ll let the markets do the rest,” he added.

Gordon said it may take six months to a year before a resolution is reached with China.

“The administration is not going to settle for a deal with China,” he said. “The things we were negotiating were things they already had in place with other countries. It’s not like we were negotiating things they’re not already doing with other trading partners. They’re just using it as a ploy - they’re using American farmers as their scapegoat.

“As much as farmers hurt, they don’t want to settle on a deal,” he added. “We want the right deal. China has done a lot of bad acting. They hold biotech approvals when they should be approving them, they’re stealing intellectual property from us. There’s a long laundry list. They negotiate in good faith and then they take things off the table.”

Building support for Minnesota-grown

Back in Colombia and Peru, Gordon and the group toured grocery stores and local fresh markets, as well as slaughter facilities for both beef and pork.

The takeaways from the trip are that opportunities exist for more trade of agricultural products between with the South American countries, particularly high-end meat cuts.

Gordon said the trip extended the olive branch by starting the conversation and creating relationships. Now, the plan is to invite congressional representatives from those countries to Minnesota to see first-hand the agricultural products grown here.

“It was a great experience - I’m glad I went,” Gordon said of the trip. “We need to keep doing these kinds of events - creating those relationships with other trading partners.”

Next week, Gordon will embark on a 10-day mission trip to Indonesia and Thailand to promote U.S. soybeans. He will speak on the nutritional aspect of U.S. soybeans and their amino acid content during a conference of chicken broiler and layer producers and related businesses.

Between 55% and 60% of all U.S.-grown soybeans are exported, and those exports are needed to build up the market price for American farmers.

“I hope the local farmer realizes what being a part of the association - paying into the checkoff - is really doing for them,” Gordon said. “If we didn’t have these markets that we’re building, with the loss of China, we’d be at $5 to $6 soybeans, not $8. It’s amazing how many exports we’ve kept up after losing China.”