Chief U.S. trade official pitches Trans-Pacific Partnership at Nebraska farm

Chief U.S. trade official pitches Trans-Pacific Partnership at Nebraska farm

By Russell Hubbard / World-Herald staff writer | Posted: Wednesday, April 8, 2015 1:00 am

Michael Froman

Michael Froman

VALLEY, Neb. — The Obama administration’s top trade official said Wednesday in Nebraska that a major free-trade agreement under negotiation would help the state’s economy by boosting exports and creating jobs.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, the chief U.S. official on international trade and a member of the president’s Cabinet, traveled to a family farm here to brief ag producers on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which aims to lower or eliminate trade barriers between the United States and 11 other nations, most of them in Asia.

The agreement eventually would do away with import taxes such as the 38 percent Japan adds to U.S. beef and the 70 percent other Asian nations tack on to farm machinery. Partnership nations already account for $4 billion of Nebraska’s exports.

Advocates say a free-trade pact would create more buyers for U.S. goods, while critics say the United States has more to lose than gain from open-borders trading with poorer countries.

“It is in our national interest to tear these barriers down,” Froman said at the Ueberrhein family farm, a 1,500-acre operation that produces corn and soybeans. “Nebraska has seen exports triple in the past decade, and it is not just agricultural products but machinery and the tools of agriculture.”

In 2014, Nebraska exported nearly $8 billion of goods abroad, supporting about 43,000 jobs, Froman said, adding that $4.3 billion of the exports came from the Omaha area.

The Obama administration has been touting free trade with the Trans-Pacific countries and with European nations that would be covered under another deal being negotiated, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb., said a new trade agreement would be “a net plus for Nebraska.”

Froman and Ashford met privately with a group of farmers and representatives of farm groups. Ahead of the trip, Froman said he wanted farmers and ranchers to know how the administration is working to help them sell more products all over the world.

Froman, whose stops on the latest free-trade tour have included Iowa and Wisconsin, spent Wednesday afternoon with Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert. The pair visited Omaha ag equipment manufacturer Valmont Industries, a major employer and exporter of irrigation and infrastructure products.

In Valley, host farmer Ryan Ueberrhein, whose family has been on its farm for three generations, said the minute aspects of global trade don’t get as much attention from him as getting the land in shape and the crops cared for. But he did say he expects that the prospect of more customers for his grain is better than the prospect of fewer.

“Ultimately, it’s going to help by opening up new avenues,” Ueberrhein said.

Froman and Ashford were given a short tour of the Ueberrhein’s machinery shed after speaking with farmers and representatives of ag groups such as the Nebraska Farmers Union, the president of which is not a fan of recent free-trade agreements.

Farmers Union chief John Hansen said after the briefing with Froman and Ashford that the country’s track record on free-trade agreements is poor. He cited the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and more recent experience with Korea. In three years, he said, Korean imports are up 38 percent and U.S. exports to that country are about level.

Other concerns exist among leaders of labor unions.

Omaha Federation of Labor President Terry Moore said area, state and national leaders are just getting up to speed on the latest Trans-Pacific developments. In no case, he said, does organized labor support any agreement that would send U.S. jobs overseas. Some blame NAFTA for relocating textile and other industrial plants abroad.

“My concern is American jobs, U.S. jobs,” Moore said. “I have a simple mission in life. Can a couple with three children buy a house, a car and send the kids to college?”

Free-trade agreements, he said, must pass this “U.S. jobs test.”

“Look at textiles. It’s gone,” he said. “It’s gone to where they pay $2 a day.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-3197, russell.hubbard