In March Thomas Sleight, the president of the U.S. Grains Council, flew to Mexico to calm worried partners. His association represents U.S. farmers who trade abroad, and while it has connections in more than 50 countries, Mexico is one of the most important; lately, it’s been a bit uneasy there. The future of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is uncertain, and after Trump took office Sleight heard that some Mexican partners they’d worked with for years were acting a bit “frosty.” So Sleight visited with Mexican farmers from the Yucatán and from the country’s western coast, and in both regions he heard a common complaint.
Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, called NAFTA a horrible deal for the U.S. and vowed to withdraw from the pact—though he has walked back those comments, saying he’ll renegotiate the deal with Mexico and Canada. But NAFTA is a behemoth, and, while Trump might have the basis for an argument when it comes to manufacturing, which has seen a massive workforce decline since NAFTA went into effect in 1994 (though some studies have shown that it is mechanization not free trade that have hurt those jobs), agricultural trade is seen as a success on all sides of the border. Since it was signed, Canada and Mexico have become by far America’s largest export markets for products like corn, pork, beef, dairy, soybeans and poultry, and overall total exports have grown from $9 billion in 1993 to $41 billion by 2014. On the ground that means about one of every 10 planted acres in the U.S. feeds Mexicans or Canadians. So when Trump crisscrossed the U.S. damning NAFTA as a failure, he created a problem for U.S. agriculture that had previously never existed.