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Former Secretary Of Agriculture Tom Vilsack Responds To Trump's Speech To Farmers


Rural voters overwhelmingly went for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. That's despite one of his central campaign promises. American farmers largely support the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and Trump has threatened to pull the U.S. out of it. Today at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual conference in Nashville, Trump said his administration is renegotiating the deal right now.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But think of it. When Mexico's making all of that money, when Canada's making all of that money, it's not the easiest negotiation. But we're going to make it fair for you people again.

SHAPIRO: Joining us now is Tom Vilsack. He was agriculture secretary to President Obama. He was governor of Iowa before that, and he now runs the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Welcome.

TOM VILSACK: It's good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: President Trump says he's trying to renegotiate NAFTA. How realistic do you think that is?

VILSACK: (Laughter) Well, I think it's obvious the negotiations have been difficult and challenging. Not much progress has been made on the agricultural issues. It's a divided set of issues for agriculture. Our Mexican relationship is quite good. For example, the dairy industry - it's the No. 1 market for U.S. dairy products. However, on the dairy side, Canada has a very closed market. So hopefully, if there is to be a renegotiation of NAFTA and a modernization of it, can it - the Canadians would be willing to open up their markets. To date, they've not been willing to do that.

SHAPIRO: It doesn't sound like you're entirely opposed to some sort of a renegotiation. I want to play you something that we heard on Morning Edition today from President Trump's agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue. He has the job you held during the Obama administration. This is part of what he said in that interview.


SONNY PERDUE: The president has a New York-style negotiating that believes that unless you're willing to walk away from a deal, you're not going to get the best deal. He's proven to be a good negotiator in his business dealings and I think also in his government dealings as president. So I've got confidence he will at the end of the day have a great deal for American farmers and the American economy.

SHAPIRO: Secretary Vilsack, what do you make of that characterization?

VILSACK: Well, I would point out the president has been in bankruptcy. So there are times when his negotiation hasn't been as solid as it needs to be. He's playing a very dicey game in terms of agriculture and NAFTA. Actually, farmers are for the most part very satisfied with the way in which NAFTA has been handled. There are one or two issues involving specialty crops that would potentially (inaudible) farmers on the other side.

But for the most part, the grain producers, livestock producers, dairy producers are very satisfied with certainly the Mexican aspect of NAFTA. Again, some issues with Canada that could be worked out, but so far, Canada's expressed no willingness to budge on this. So I will tell you it would be devastating to American agriculture if the president decided to walk away from NAFTA. And I think agriculture is pretty well united in the message it's sent to the administration that would be a very, very poor outcome.

SHAPIRO: And so when you hear talk of the president renegotiating, do farmers tell you that they are more anxious about that or optimistic for how it might turn out?

VILSACK: Well, I think they're concerned. They're concerned because there hasn't been the progress in the negotiations. Initially when these negotiations began, the hope was that they would be culminated and terminated by the end of the year in 2017 and obviously is not the case. They've now extended into 2018. Now you've got a Mexican presidential election and our congressional elections, which makes it even more complicated. So hopefully progress is made very, very quickly on some of these very, very difficult issues.

Here's the problem. When we began the process of renegotiating NAFTA, when we pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, our European friends who are competitors for us in a number of areas filled the void that has been created. So they're going to have to get this NAFTA thing done fairly quickly. And if they fail to get it done and walk away from this agreement, it will be very difficult for American agriculture. You can talk about regulatory reform, and you can talk about taxes. But at the end of the day, what farmers want are markets.

SHAPIRO: I want to end by asking about part of your mission during the Obama administration, which was to reach out to rural communities on behalf of the Democratic Party. And it frankly didn't work. The GOP share of the vote in rural areas was 9 percent higher in 2016 than in 2008. Where do you think your party failed these communities?

VILSACK: Well, first of all, we've got to show up. We actually have to be in these rural communities. We have to learn how to talk to rural folks, not talk down to them. We have to talk up about them and the sacrifices and contributions they make to the country, which are significant. We also have to talk about an economy that is not an extraction economy, an economy that basically takes from the land and then ships it off to some other location where value is added and jobs are created. We've got to create a sustainable economy where we create those opportunities - those value-added opportunities where the products are being taken from in rural communities. We can do that. We started to do that in the Obama administration. But frankly, the Democratic Party has some catch-up to do.

SHAPIRO: Secretary Vilsack, thank you very much.

VILSACK: You bet.

SHAPIRO: Former agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, now head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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