With the New Year comes a new calendar and a new Congress. The 116th Congress begins its term with a Democrat-controlled House and strengthened Republican hold on the Senate following the highest midterm voter turnout in 48 years. Looking at the top 50 pork-producing House districts across the country, three (IA-1, IA-3, MN-2) flipped from Republican to Democrat while one (MN-1) flipped the other way. Although stalemates are possible with a split Congress, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) will continue its aggressive advocacy in Washington on behalf of pig farmers nationwide. Our top two issues in 2019? Trade and labor.
Maintaining and expanding export opportunities is NPPC’s number one priority. U.S. pork has been at the tip of the spear in ongoing trade disputes, resulting in retaliatory tariffs from two of our top five largest markets (China and Mexico). With the signing of the revised trade agreement in Korea that preserved zero-tariff access for U.S. pork products and the new agreement with Mexico and Canada (USMCA), momentum appears to be heading in the right direction. Even in a Democratic House, with more members likely to scrutinize its labor and environmental provisions, NPPC is optimistic Congress will ratify USMCA in the first half of 2019.
The Trump administration also announced its intention to initiate trade discussions with Japan, the No. 1 value market for U.S. pork exports. NPPC is pleased to see the administration going on the offensive to form new trade agreements, particularly since there is no end in sight for in the trade war with China, the world’s largest pork-consuming nation.
In addition to fighting for expanded export markets, NPPC is striving for meaningful agricultural visa reform. In my conversations with NPPC members, access to a capable and reliable work force to take care of animals and keep plants running is of paramount concern. NPPC commissioned a study by Iowa State University in 2018 that validated what pork producers have said for years: An aging rural workforce and the trend of young people moving to urban areas is squeezing producers’ ability to find workers. This is occurring despite wage growth in the pork industry that is higher than the national average.
The retirement of Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., means the NPPC has lost an ally on the House Judiciary Committee to advocate for agricultural visa reform. On the Senate side, Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Diane Feinstein, D-Calif. are likely to take over as chair and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, respectively. Senator Graham has a close relationship with the president and was a key member of the Gang of Eight in 2013. Senator Feinstein has authored agricultural guest worker reform pieces in the past because of California’s reliance on foreign labor in both the produce and dairy industries. Despite the changing of the committee leadership guard in the House to Congressman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., of Brooklyn, we are hopeful we can find a middle ground to address the labor shortage for year-round animal agriculture needs.
Dustin Baker serves as the director of economics and domestic production issues for the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). Based out of Washington, D.C., he is responsible for matters such as the farm bill, mandatory price reporting, and issues related to buying and selling hogs and pork. Baker grew up on a livestock farm in central Michigan and holds degrees from Cornell University and Michigan State University.