Farm groups plow into trade fight

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U.S. agriculture groups have begun a massive lobbying campaign aimed at winning congressional approval of President Obama’s sweeping Pacific Rim trade agreement.

Agriculture interests including producers of beef, chicken, grain and corn have emerged as some of the biggest backers of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), giving Obama powerful allies as he seeks to win votes for the agreement.

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With the TPP facing headwinds in Congress, the agriculture groups are coming to lawmakers with a simple message: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

“If we are to move the U.S. economy forward, we have to be willing to negotiate and pass deals that better positions the U.S. to compete globally. TPP does that,” Devry Boughner Vorwerk, the vice president of corporate affairs for Cargill, told the International Trade Commission in January.

The trade deal is facing opposition in both parties, with Republicans stressing they won’t help pass the agreement until the White House resolves their concerns about several issues, especially the treatment of pharmaceuticals and tobacco.

Democrats, meanwhile, are mostly against the pact, arguing it will lead to job losses and depressed wages.

The agriculture groups insist that the TPP has far-reaching benefits for U.S. farmers and ranchers in every state. Passing the agreement, they say, would send a powerful message that the United States is ready to seize the economic and strategic reins in the Asia-Pacific.

Many of the agriculture groups are already lobbying for the TPP, taking their message to Capitol Hill and canvassing nearly every congressional district in a fight where every single vote will count.

Beef producers, for example, are taking advantage of this week’s congressional recess to meet with lawmakers in their states.

“We’re doing our best to educate people even as they are getting hit from all sides speculating about how the TPP harms them,” said Kent Bacus, associate director of legislative affairs with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The early conversations with lawmakers have shown just how much work is ahead to build support.

Bacus said many lawmakers were under the impression that beef had gotten left out of the final TPP agreement.

“It’s going to take a lot of education and coordination moving forward,” he said.

The cattlemen’s association has a TPP website highlighting the losses the industry is facing in the Pacific while the deal remains in limbo.

Bacus acknowledged that there are TPP supporters on Capitol Hill who are politically vulnerable this year but said he hopes more will come out in favor of the deal as the presidential primary season progresses.

“If they don’t take a stand for TPP, which stands to benefit agriculture for many years to come, we want to know why,” Bacus said.

Chicken producers and corn growers are also putting their muscle behind the trade deal.

Tom Super, senior vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council, said poultry interests plan to bring a massive group of advocates to Washington in early March to urge a vote this year on the TPP.

“The sooner the better for us,” Super said.

Super said that his group is focusing its lobbying efforts on lawmakers from what he calls the “Broiler Belt.” The region stretches from central Pennsylvania down through Mid-Atlantic and into the South, and includes Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, along with Texas.

Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama are the top three broiler-chicken producing states, with Mississippi and North Carolina not too far behind. There are smaller operations in California and Minnesota, as well. 

“Yes, people eat chicken in every state, but that is where our main focus is,” Super said.

Zach Kinne, director of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association, said the main thrust of their lobbying will be in the 28 states of the “Corn Belt,” though the group also plans to fan out across most of the country.

He said lawmakers in the Corn Belt states are likely to hear the “constant drumbeat of why trade matters and why we need TPP passed this year or as soon as possible.”

Corn growers are also planning to storm Capitol Hill with advocates in March and will coordinate with pro-trade groups like the Trade Benefits America to extend their reach into most other states.

The Corn Belt covers a broad swath of the nation, from the East Coast to as far west as Nebraska and from Louisiana northward into Minnesota.

David Salmonsen, senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said his group’s members are casting a wide net across all congressional districts.

The Farm Bureau’s state groups are planning Washington trips and will give special consideration to those districts with members on the House Ways and Means and the Senate Finance committees, which will have to approve the TPP for floor consideration.

Some groups supportive of the trade deal are taking their time to carefully coordinate their message before intensifying their efforts.

Gina Tumbarello, director of international policy and trade for the American Feed Industry Association, said that her group is still combing through the TPP and plans to pick up the pace this spring.

“From our perspective, we think it’s a little too early to identify specific targets on the Hill,” Tumbarello said.

“Everything is so politicized with the presidential election, but over the next couple of months we’ll see where everybody stands.”