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This week, more than 50 agriculture deans and academics in the United States signed a letter urging trade representatives to avoid changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement that would hamper trade. One of the signers was Mark Cochran, vice president for agriculture at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Global markets are very important to the state's economy, Cochran said.

Rice and poultry are the top commodities in Arkansas, and "Mexico has been a big market for both," he said.

Mexico is the largest U.S. rice export customer, and Arkansas-grown rice makes up roughly 40 percent of the total U.S. supply annually, according to the Arkansas Farm Bureau.

Mexico is also the most important U.S. poultry export market, according to the National Chicken Council.

Recent council data show that annual U.S. chicken exports to Mexico were valued at about $515 million; egg exports at $27 million; and turkey exports at $348 million.

Since the ratification of NAFTA, agricultural exports to Canada and Mexico have increased fourfold. Currently, Canada and Mexico represent the second- and third-largest global markets for U.S. agricultural exports, respectively.

"U.S. agricultural exports to Canada and Mexico account for nearly one-fourth of all U.S. employment attributed to merchandise trade with those countries," according to the letter.

In June, 10 Republican senators -- including Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman of Arkansas -- sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in support of further NAFTA negotiations to strengthen agricultural trade in Canada, while maintaining relations with Mexico.

"As the administration works with Mexican trade representatives we urge you to ensure that this mutually beneficial trade relation continues," according to the U.S. Senate letter.

The first round of NAFTA renegotiation talks began Wednesday, and the largest uncertainty is whether negotiations can pass President Donald Trump's "America first" test. During his campaign, Trump said many U.S. jobs in the auto industry have been lost to Mexico as a result of NAFTA.

Travis Justice, chief economist with the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico is connected largely with the manufacturing sector, not agriculture.

It's unlikely that much will be changed in the agricultural sector, but if NAFTA discussions bleed into influencing immigration policy, "we've got a big stake in that game," Justice said.

"We got folks in this state that rely on immigrant labor that require a lot of pickers for a short period of time," he said. "Along the border, it's the same situation."

Business on 08/17/2017

Print Headline: Arkansan signs letter urging caution in NAFTA talks

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