Meet the farmers who say NAFTA hasn’t helped them

Big Ag has long chanted the benefits of NAFTA to American farmers, pointing out that the free-trade deal with Mexico and Canada has quadrupled U.S. farm exports since it went into effect in 1994. “But despite the largely pro-trade drumbeat in the ag sector, there are plenty of farmers who feel otherwise,” say Kristina Johnson and Sam Fromartz in FERN’s latest story, published with NPR’s The Salt.

“From tomato growers in Florida to cattle ranchers in Montana, some farmers bruised by NAFTA think it has favored agribusiness over small-scale farms, lowered environmental standards and made it harder to compete against cheaper imports,” Johnson and Fromartz explain. With renegotiation talks slated to begin August 16, these disgruntled farmers are waiting to see whether anyone will remember their needs.

“NAFTA was going to be so wonderful for American agriculture,” says Dena Hoff, a grain and livestock farmer in eastern Montana and a co-regional coordinator of the farmer-rights group La Via Campesina. “Everyone was going to make money, because there were going to be all these exports,” says Hoff. “We were going to open the border [to trade]; the environmental standards in Mexico were going to rise; there was going to be prosperity for all three countries. But of course the opposite happened.”

For example, strawberry farmers in Florida have seen a four-fold increase in imports from Mexico, creating a “clear and present danger” for the U.S. industry, according to Kenneth Parker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Grower Association.

And Lynn Brodal, a durum wheat grower in North Dakota, says that despite promises of free trade under NAFTA, he can’t seem to sell his harvest to Canada. “I can’t find a single [Canadian] grain elevator that will take our [wheat],” Brodal says, even as Canadian durum continues to enter the United States. He blames artificial trade barriers, like complicated paperwork and exaggerated claims about weeds in American wheat.

“The net effect of trade agreements like NAFTA is to put more power, more authority with the large multinational companies and by extension, take that power away from family farmers,” says Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, pointing to companies like Tyson and Cargill that operate on both sides of the border, raising meat wherever its cheapest and then selling it in the U.S.