NAFTA negotiations with Canada mean a lot to the North Country

Wednesday marked a renewal of the negotiations between the United States and Canada on the North American Free Trade Agreement — negotiations that will be particularly relevant for the North Country economy.

“The U.S.-Canada economic partnership is the single greatest driving force in the overall North Country region,” wrote North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas in an email to the Times. “It is the reason that we have economic growth opportunities that are unimaginable in most similar rural regions.”

Many elected officials are using the negotiations as a chance to advocate for improvements to this partnership, particularly Canada’s protectionist attitude towards dairy.

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand held a press conference urging President Donald Trump to reject any new trade agreement with Canada unless it includes provisions that provide more support for U.S. dairy farmers.

Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said she wants Canada to eliminate “prohibitive” limits and tariffs on U.S. dairy imports, minimize its processing requirements and allow U.S. producers to import products that use European geographical indications, such as Parmesan, feta and Muenster cheese, positions she also outlined in a letter to United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

“Canada has unfairly subsidized its own dairy industry for years,” she said.

Lawmakers have previously demanded Canada eliminate what they and farmers have considered barriers to entry for dairy, in hopes of bolstering low milk prices that have plagued producers for about four years.

Dairy farmers nationwide have experienced a decline in earnings as rising milk production from several countries has created a glut in the international market. The price they receive for their milk has fallen below the cost of production.

Bipartisan support

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., also urged the president and Lighthizer in May to strike a deal with Canada that would lower Canada’s barriers to U.S. dairy — including a tariff of up to 270 percent on fluid milk.

“Because of its negative impacts on American jobs, I have long been a critic of NAFTA and support improving it,” Schumer wrote in a statement sent to the Times on Wednesday. “But any final trade deal must tear down the unfair ‘dairy wall’ Canada has erected to prevent New York’s hard-working dairy farmers from freely and fairly selling their products in the nearby Canadian market.”

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik has been more positive than Schumer about the impact of NAFTA but has also called for improvements to dairy trade with Canada. In April she signed onto a letter to Lighthizer calling for increased access for American dairy to Canadian markets. Her spokesman Tom Flanagin issued a statement about Stefanik’s support for NAFTA and how she wants to see it strengthened and modernized

Cobb weighs in

On Tuesday, Stefanik’s Democratic challenger, Tedra Cobb, shared her thoughts on the trade negotiations after a press conference.

“The opportunity we have with renegotiations is to engage labor,” Cobb said. “The opportunity we have is to make sure we are engaging with all the people — farmers and labor — all the people who have a stake in those renegotiations. To me, government is not about throwing out trade agreements. It’s not about throwing out health-care policies. It’s about making them better.”

Cobb also said any new version of the agreements would have to avoid creating job losses.

“The question going forward is, how do we make sure that doesn’t happen?” she said. “Any negotiation has to make sure that the environmental regulations we are using in the United States are being used elsewhere, that the labor protections we have are being used elsewhere, so the playing field is even.”

Trump warns Congress

Trump on Sunday tweeted that the U.S. would not include Canada in a new trade deal unless the two countries could establish a “fair deal.” The president also demanded Congress not “interfere” with trade talks or he would terminate NAFTA.

“Remember, NAFTA was one of the WORST Trade Deals ever made,” the president tweeted. “We make new deal or go back to pre-NAFTA!”

Gillibrand, however, said she believed her comments served as insight as opposed to interference.

“Basically, it’s intended to give more information about specific industry data,” she said.

Gillibrand also demanded that Trump release the $12 billion in emergency relief funding the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would provide farmers in July. The federal pot of funds contains an estimated $127 million for dairy producers, according to the senator.

Seeking improvements

As elected officials have shared their goals with the negotiators, business groups in the North Country and across the state have echoed calls for improvements to NAFTA.

The New York Farm Bureau, for example, is concerned about Canada’s actions to reduce the importation of milk. In particular, they want to end the Canadian restrictions on importing ultra-filtered milk, which directly impacts at least one plant in Central New York.

Overall, though, Lauren Williams, senior associate director of national affairs for the Farm Bureau, is hopeful.

“Mexico should be a really good agreement,” she said, referring to negotiations that concluded last week. “Canada may be a little more difficult. … That will be the bigger hurdle to jump over.”

The United States exports about $22 billion in agricultural goods to Canada, according to Williams, more than to any other country.

“We’re just looking for positive results,” she said. “While we are focussed on dairy, we hope other products, like fruits and vegetables and meats, will have a positive impact.”

Other concerns

Outside of dairy, negotiations may also impact aluminum — important to the Alcoa aluminum plant in Massena, run by the subsidiary Arconic.

“The Aluminum Association is encouraged by continued NAFTA negotiations,” wrote Matt Meenan, spokesman for the Aluminum Association, which includes Arconic. “While this announcement signals progress, a final modernized agreement must include Canada to mitigate disruption to the vital, integrated North American supply chains for aluminum. We encourage the Trump administration to work with both Mexico and Canada to reach an agreement that maintains and improves NAFTA, and also paves the way for quota-free country exemptions from the aluminum import tariffs.”

Douglass, of the Plattsburgh-based North Country Chamber of Commerce, said that the negotiations promise economic benefits for both countries, and especially northern New York.

“The reality is, the U.S. and Canada have moved beyond trade to a post-trade form of economic integration within which we make things together and, in so doing, are jointly more competitive with China and the world,” he wrote.

This relationship has been rocked recently by trade spats, including tariffs implemented on steel and aluminum. This, according to Douglass, raises the stakes of the negotiations.

“The recent disruption in the U.S.-Canada economic relationship, including current tariffs, is the greatest economic threat to the North Country today,” he wrote. “It’s why we and others on both sides of the border are watching negotiations with keen interest and actively encouraging good will and determination in renewed negotiations. Failure simply cannot be an option, for the U.S. as a whole, for Canada and certainly not for the North Country.”