U.S. agriculture is set to be a major beneficiary of the softening Cuban/U.S. trade barriers. Perhaps no state is as keen to get deals finalized as Arkansas.
On April 8, Delta Farm Press spoke with Wes Ward, Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture, about Cuba and other issues facing the state’s farmers. Ward is set to speak at the third annual Mid-South Ag & Environmental Law Conference in Memphis on April 22. Among his comments:
“Cuba is certainly at the front of many folks’ minds. Look at Arkansas agriculture as a whole and about 30 percent of our production is exported. That means the global marketplace is very important as is having solid relationships with other countries.
“Looking at how close Cuba is to the Mid-South, it makes a lot of sense for us to have a strong trade relationship with them. A few sectors in particular – certainly poultry and rice, soybeans and a few others – are poised to benefit from more trade with Cuba.
“Arkansas Gov. (Asa) Hutchinson was kind of visionary when the relationships between the two countries began to normalize and he realized what impact it could have on Arkansas. As a result, he quickly began putting together a trip to Cuba with the Arkansas World Trade Center and a group of business leaders from within the state. He was the first U.S. governor to visit once the U.S. embassy opened there. So, driven largely by agriculture interests, Arkansas – helped by our Congressional delegation and our Governor -- has been on the forefront of efforts in regards to Cuba.
“It’s been an interesting thing to watch unfold. It’s one thing if I or an individual producer goes down to Cuba and tries to make trade inroads. But when the Governor personally travels there it takes it to a much higher level and opens up a lot of doors.”
On the efforts of Engage Cuba…
“The Cuba Consortium and the Engage Cuba Coalition are two similar efforts to further the dialogue about Cuba.
“The Cuba Consortium held an Agriculture and Food industry roundtable in Arkansas last month which included remarks from Gov. Hutchinson as well as sessions with Sen. Boozman and Rep. Crawford.
“The Engage Cuba Coalition is another effort to show the benefits of normalizing trade relationships with Cuba. Arkansas recently established an Engage Cuba State Council which includes 37 members that are committed to engaging Cuba through diplomacy and trade.”
The TPP, rice, legislature
On the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal…
“Overall, it looks like it could be beneficial. There have been reports -- the USDA, AFBF, the poultry industry, beef and others -- showing that TPP would be a good deal for U.S. agriculture. There are a lot of people supportive of the pact.
“But one area specific to Arkansas is the fact that we produce about 50 percent of the nation’s rice. There are aspects of the TPP that aren’t as beneficial to our rice producers as we would have liked. We understand the TPP would be helpful for some and not as helpful for others.
“Regardless, we appreciate Ambassador Darci Vetter coming to Arkansas. She was very engaged in several forums over a couple of days. It was very helpful for those in attendance to hear what she had to say and have some of their questions answered.”
When you came into your current position, I’m sure you knew of the rice industry’s frustrations with some of these trade deals. Do you see that frustration began tamped down if the United States brings WTO action against trade partners unwilling to follow deal rules?
“Ambassador Vetter touched on that, the fact that there are frustrations not just with the U.S. rice industry but across many groups. When the United States makes a commitment, we stick to it and hold ourselves to the highest standard. The reality is other countries don’t always do the same.
“The ambassador didn’t give a lot of specifics on what they’re trying to do. However, it’s something that high-level government officials are aware of and are trying to figure out the correct time, place and circumstances with which to bring complaints to the WTO if that is deemed to be the most appropriate response.
“You hear about ‘free trade’ and ‘fair trade’ and they’re not synonymous. We must make sure that everyone is held to the same standard under these trade agreements.”
The Arkansas legislature is meeting (in April) for a fiscal session. Are you expecting anything to be brought up that could impact agriculture?
“At this point, we’re not anticipating anything that would have an impact on agriculture. In the last general session in 2015, the Grain Dealers Act was brought in in response to the (Turner Grain) bankruptcy. There’s nothing like that in this fiscal session.
“One thing that’s worth noting is that agriculture is the most common profession amongst Arkansas legislators. Agriculture is the largest industry in the state and having lawmakers that understand agriculture and how important it is to our state is good for producers.”
On the Mid-South Ag & Environmental Law Conference in Memphis…
“We’re blessed to have the National Ag Law Center in Fayetteville. They do great work and this conference addresses a lot of legal concerns around agriculture. Last year, the conference was full of great speakers and tremendous information. I expect the same this year.
“My talk at the conference will focus on Cuba and some of the recent efforts. This will include the Governors trip there last year as well as some of the efforts by members of our congressional delegation. I will also discuss the Cuba Consortium and the Engage Cuba Coalition.”