The state tree fruit industry’s take on President Donald J. Trump’s plan to help growers negatively affected by retaliatory tariffs can be summed up in a single sentence:
“They want trade, rather than aid,” Gov. Jay Inslee said after meeting with several members of the Yakima Valley tree fruit industry during an hour-long roundtable Wednesday at Zirkle Fruit in Selah.
The roundtable was one of several stops the Democratic governor made during a visit to the Yakima Valley on Wednesday.
Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., Trump met with several members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, about the impact of trade issues on the agriculture industry. Just before the meeting, Trump announced an agreement with the European Union to work toward zero tariffs and zero non-tariff trade barriers.
The agreement was vague, but Trump said the EU had agreed to buy “a lot of soybeans” and increase its imports of liquefied natural gas from the U.S.
In a statement sent to media Wednesday, Newhouse said he brought up the impact of tariffs on Central Washington cherry growers as an example of an industry that was affected by rising tensions over trade.
In his statement, Newhouse said he was encouraged by the agreement with the European Union. Trump is working to level the playing field to address unfair trade practices, Newhouse said.
“Today’s announcement of re-examining plans for additional tariffs and putting existing tariffs on hold while trade talks continue with the (European Union) will go a long way to rebuilding confidence with our trading partners,” Newhouse said.
Inslee’s meeting with the tree fruit industry came a day after Trump announced a $12 billion plan that includes direct payments to growers, a federal government purchase and distribution program and assistance to help farmers develop new international export markets.
Tariffs from countries such as China, Mexico and India have already done considerable damage to the state’s key agricultural industries. Shipments to China, which now charges a 50 percent tariff on U.S. cherries, have come to a halt even though there are several more weeks left in the state’s cherry harvest. Damages to the state apple industry from prohibitive tariffs of apples to Mexico, China and India are estimated at $129 million if a resolution isn’t reached before harvest starts in a few weeks.
“This is not a hypothetical concern, this is real-life damage being done to Washington state,” Inslee said.
Inslee expressed skepticism on Trump’s relief plan. “We’re also concerned that those aid programs, from what we heard so far, are not well-targeted to help Washington,” he said.
Indeed, tree fruit is not included in the commodities that would qualify for a program that would provide cash payments to affected growers.
The industry qualifies for the other two components of the program. Through the food purchase and distribution program, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service would purchase an unplanned surplus of agricultural commodities and distribute it to food banks and other federal nutrition programs.
The program that would be of most benefit for growers here is the Trade Promotion Program, which would assist industries develop new export markets for farm products.
But funds for those two programs are expected to be minimal compared to direct grower payments, said Derek Sandison, director of the state Department of Agriculture, who also attended the roundtable at Zirkle Fruit Wednesday.
While the state tree fruit industry can use assistance, there may be other state and federal programs that will provide more long-term benefit, especially in maintaining exports amid tensions with key trading partners, said Mark Powers, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, a Yakima-based organization that represents the region’s tree fruit industry in public policy issues, in a phone interview. Powers attended the roundtable discussion with Inslee.
“We are not interested in subsidies or direct payments,” Powers said. “We need to be able to ship our fruit overseas.”
Sandison said his agency is considering ways the agency can help affected growers. They include providing funds to expand marketing efforts in other parts of the U.S. or to help the industry work out phytosanitary restrictions that have limited apple exports to certain countries, such as South Korea and Japan.
“Whatever we do would be carefully orchestrated with the industry,” Sandison said. “We have a very sophisticated ag industry in Washington state and we want to make sure that we’re gaining from their experience in marketing before we launch anything.”
The most ideal scenario would be to resolve trade disputes that would end tariffs from key export markets for apples, including China and Mexico, Powers said.
“Getting rid of those retaliatory tariffs is the top priority,” Powers said.