While most of us were returning home from the long weekend, Ontario ag leaders were packing their bags for Wisconsin. It’s the first stop on a mission to keep two-way trade flowing between the province and US states where Ontario does appreciable business -- Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
The group, led by Ontario agriculture, food and rural affairs minister Jeff Leal, will meet with a slate of decision makers there that includes the state’s secretary of agriculture and federal representatives. They’ll be pointing out that despite what US President Donald Trump says, the trade situation between our two countries is working out very well for both.
Wisconsin is where, in April, Trump declared war on supply management in Canada, especially dairy. He claimed it was hurting US farmers, even though most American dairy farmers disagree. And so does the financial ledger – the truth is that the trade balance between Ontario and Wisconsin is about $1 billion in favour of Wisconsin.
“When it comes to trade, there are peaks and valleys,” says Leal. “That’s the nature of trade. We’ll politely, firmly and diplomatically point out the advantages of two-way trade.”
Leal says he and the team, which includes members from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Egg Farmers of Ontario, will continue to defend supply management and the interests of Ontario farmers and processors.
The group can also be expected to remind those they meet that low prices for dairy worldwide are the result of overproduction, not Canadian trade policies.
Much is at stake to keep trade buoyant. Ontario is the number one customer of 20 U.S. states, and the second-largest of eight more. The province says nearly nine million US jobs depend on trade and investment with Canada. Indeed, in 2016, two-way agri-food trade between Ontario and the US totalled about $28.8 billion.
Earlier this month, Leal and Premier Kathleen Wynne met with several of the province’s agri-food leaders to discuss trade relations with the United States. Opportunities, challenges and the way forward were all on the table, they said. Now comes the follow through.
The issue heated up last week when it was announced that Trump had instructed congress to get the ball rolling for NAFTA renegotiation.
Interestingly, the premier welcomed it.
“Growing a healthy Ontario-US trade relationship is good for both economies,” she said. “We see this decision as an opportunity to look at how NAFTA could potentially be improved to make the agreement even more effective for the people of Ontario, our workers and businesses. Ontario and our US neighbours don't just ‘trade – we build things together. Our businesses' supply chains and operations are deeply integrated.”
Her remarks indicate a good grasp of the situation. Instead of defending the status quo with our US neighbours, use this opportunity to grow the relationship, she says.
I believe the premier is right. Integration between Canadian and US agriculture is a part of our culture. Sometimes, that’s to our detriment, especially when we ship raw commodities and import back finished goods. But cooler heads may well prevail when a closer look at the NAFTA agreement reveals new ways both sides may be able to work together and be profitable.
The status quo is being disrupted anyway. So, bring it on.