On Above the Fold, we recently examined the 12 states that would be hit hardest by a withdrawal from NAFTA. Over the coming weeks, we’ll take a close look at one small business in each of those states that depends on NAFTA. Check back for future installments.
Ask Chris Petersen, and he’ll tell you, for as long as he can remember all he’s ever wanted to be was a farmer.
Even after his father left the life behind, Petersen couldn’t stay away. As soon as he could--at the age of 16-- he bought his first hogs. He married his high school sweetheart a few years later, and together they bought a farm in the lakeside small town of Clear Lake Iowa, where he’s raised three kids and still lives nearly 50 years later.
Over the years he’s raised soybeans, corn, and other produce and now has around 700 Berkshire hogs and a hay business along with smaller amounts of cattle and vegetables. From the swooning of commodity prices to droughts and floods he’s had to weather the storms of the business, both literally and figuratively. He’s seen success-and has flirted with bankruptcy.
‘It’s getting harder’
To make up shortfalls over the years he’s worked night and factory jobs. He's even driven a school bus all for the privilege of being able to keep his farm going.
“Farming is the greatest job in the world, and at the same time one of the hardest lives one person can live,” Petersen says. “There is such a rich history of American farmers. I love it every day. And yet there isn’t a moment in the day when you aren’t worried about how your family is going to eat or pay the bills. And it’s getting harder.”
He’s one of Iowa’s 80,000 farmers concerned about the direction of U.S. trade policy--an irreplaceable part of Iowa’s economy who would suffer acutely, along with other Iowan business if – as the Trump administration has threatened– the United States withdraws from NAFTA.
“Farmers in Iowa don't always agree on everything, but there are many who are very concerned about the direction of the administration's policies,” said Petersen. “There’s a sense that pulling out of NAFTA would be Armageddon for an area already struggling to stay afloat.”
Hundreds of thousands of Iowans rely on international trade and investment for their livelihood. The threat to pull out the longstanding trade agreement with Mexico and Canada could drag Iowa’s agriculture industry into another depression, Dermot Hayes, an Iowa State University economist, told the Des Moines Register in November.
Farmers aren’t the only ones threatened. Iowans export $12.1 billion a year, according to U.S. census data. And that covers everything from corn to dog food, tractors, and aluminum alloy. The United States withdrawing from NAFTA puts more than 138,000 jobs at risk. Nearly half of Iowa’s exports are destined for customers in other Canada and Mexico, generating more than $5.6 billion in revenue.
“Staying in NAFTA is how you create more American jobs. Leaving is how you destroy them,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said in the U.S. Chamber’s annual “State of American Business” address on January 10.
And the prediction is set to play out in states like Iowa. Without the agreement, Mexican tariffs would rise from zero to 10% on pork, 25% on beef, 75% on chicken, and 75% on high fructose corn syrup, a major Iowa export to Mexico.
Farmers in the state have learned how to adjust to the highs and lows of the agriculture business, but the danger of fewer markets to sell their produce is an existential threat to the state’s well-being.
“The future of farming depends on free and fair trade,” said Petersen. “All farmers want is a fair chance to work and feed their families.”