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Why Many Midwestern Farmers Are Pro-TPP

Cattle rancher Mike John runs a cow-calf operation in Huntsville, Mo., and says he hopes the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal will open up new markets for his beef.

Turn on the TV and you can barely escape the acronym TPP.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a free trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other countries that's currently being negotiated. Presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle are deriding the TPP, saying it's a bum deal that will hurt the U.S. economy and especially low-wage workers.

But if you venture into the Midwest and ask a farmer about the TPP, you're likely to get a different answer.

"This pending TPP trade negotiation, to me, is hugely important for agricultural commodities, but specifically for beef," says Mike John, a cattle rancher in Huntsville, Mo. He's one of many Midwest farmers and ranchers who are bucking the political trend to dog the TPP.

A coalition of more than 200 agriculture groups recently drafted an open letter urging congressional leaders to approve the TPP, saying the trade deal will help U.S. farmers stay competitive in an increasingly crowded world market.

Free trade agreements remove tariffs on products we import, but also on food grown here that we export to other markets. That opens the door to get more beef, soybeans and rice into other countries at more competitive prices.

John says the TPP could ultimately put money in farmers' pockets by allowing them better access to consumers in Asian countries with a taste for American beef.

"The Asian markets are showing a huge increase in demand for beef," he says. "In particular, the grain-fed U.S. beef is highly prized in places where that beef demand is growing."

The 11 countries along the Pacific Rim that are parties in the TPP already take in more than 40 percent of American agricultural exports. That's worth a whopping $63 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The TPP could add an additional $3 billion to that figure.

Many beef producers, like John, want to see the TPP ratified because it is designed to cut tariffs in countries like Japan, which has historically been highly protective of its domestic markets.

"So it's not necessarily that we need to get into those markets. We just need to have fair access so that we can compete with the other global suppliers of beef," John says.

Indeed, agricultural policy analyst Julian Binfield at the University of Missouri says not sealing the deal could leave U.S. farmers at a global disadvantage.

"If TPP is not signed, then some other countries might write their own agreement," he says. "Maybe it's partners in the TPP like Australia and New Zealand — they're writing bilateral agreements all the time. Maybe they get expansion."

Binfield says if the U.S. doesn't pass the TPP, countries like Australia and New Zealand could make their own deals with each other, excluding the U.S. That could mean less trade access overall for U.S. producers.

But there's another issue casting a long shadow over TPP negotiations: China. China is not a part of the trade deal. But pro-TPP interests say agreements like this one prevent China from setting global trade rules in its own interest.

Binfield says in the overall strategy, the U.S. wants to make sure China – which is a massive economic power – doesn't have the chance to dictate the trade rules for Asia. The U.S. wants to set the trade standards.

All of this is not to say that all farmers are campaigning for the TPP. Despite their current advocacy for the trade deal, none of the country's largest agricultural trade groups call the TPP an unmitigated victory.

The National Farmers Union actively opposes the deal. The organization of mostly smaller farmers contends that the agreement would hurt the broader economy, which could spell trouble for farmers.

"It's not that we're opposed to trade. It's not that we don't want more agricultural trade," says Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union. But Johnson says he's worried that free trade deals make it more likely that big companies will move jobs overseas. That can hurt the U.S. market for food and, in turn, hurt farmers that depend on off-farm income. He's worried we import more than we export and feed the ballooning trade deficit.

"If [the trade deficit] grows, if it gets worse as a result of this agreement, just like it has as a result of earlier agreements, then what have we gained? We just haven't made a meaningful step forward," he says.

President Obama has championed the TPP and set his sights on getting the deal approved before he leaves office. For that to happen, Congress will have to approve it, but neither the Senate nor the House have set a date for review.

This story is part of NPR's A Nation Engaged conversation about trade. Visit to see more. It comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.

Copyright 2016 KBIA-FM. To see more, visit KBIA-FM.

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