Trump Tells Farmers He Wants a Better Nafta

By William Mauldin Features Dow Jones Newswires

President Donald Trump told a gathering of farmers Monday that he is seeking a better trade deal with Canada and Mexico that will benefit both the agricultural industry and manufacturing, but he didn't reiterate previous warnings on withdrawing from the North American Trade Agreement.

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"On Nafta, I am working very hard to get a better deal for our country and for our farmers and for our manufacturers," Mr. Trump said at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in Nashville, Tenn. "When Mexico is making all of that money, when Canada is making all of that money, it's not the easiest negotiation."

Mr. Trump has said he would pull the U.S. out of Nafta if Canada and Mexico don't agree to a major rewrite of the 24-year-old deal. U.S. officials have proposed new language designed to reduce the overall U.S. trade deficit with its partners, and negotiators from all three countries will gather next round of Nafta talks begins later this month in Montreal.

The president's remarks on Nafta have worried producers of major U.S. crops and meat who generally enjoy duty-free access to Mexican and Canadian markets under the pact. In addition, major farm groups are worried that a focus on bolstering U.S. manufacturing in the negotiations could put U.S. agriculture in the back seat.

On Monday Mr. Trump didn't discuss exiting Nafta but instead said, "We're reviewing all of our trade agreements to make sure that they're fair and reciprocal." Mr. Trump has said less about Nafta in recent months in part to allow U.S. officials wide latitude at the negotiation table, according to a source familiar with White House thinking.

"What I heard him say is that he wants fair trade and he wants reciprocal trade, and that's exactly what I'm looking for," said Kevin Kester, president-elect of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, who watched the speech from the front row at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.

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The U.S. in 2016 sent $16.4 billion in agricultural and food products to Mexico and $23.4 billion to Canada, according to government figures.

Farm-state senators have held several recent meetings with Mr. Trump focused on trade, and some say they have affected his attitude toward Nafta.

"I expect President Trump to keep the pledge he made today to make trade deals that don't harm agriculture," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R.-Iowa) in a statement.

While exports of big U.S. crops have jumped under Nafta, American fruit and vegetable growers complain that rising imports from Mexico are hurting their livelihood. Mexican vegetable imports jumped to $6.1 billion in 2016, compared with $951 million in 1993. Fruit and nut imports rose to $5.9 billion from $433 million over the same period.

President Trump also said the administration is working with Congress on a new version of Washington's periodic agricultural legislation that will be passed "on time."

He also said he would sign two orders to boost broadband internet connectivity in rural areas, which lag behind urban and suburban areas in access to broadband. As of late 2016, just 63% of rural U.S. adults used broadband at home, versus 73% in cities and 76% in suburbs, data from the Pew Research Center shows.

--Jesse Newman in Chicago contributed to this article.

Write to William Mauldin at william.mauldin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 08, 2018 18:29 ET (23:29 GMT)