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In NAFTA Talks, Much at Stake for California Ranchers and Farmers

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A vineyard worker for a Napa Valley winemaker looks on as a tractor trims grapevine branches. (KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/GettyImages)

With NAFTA renegotiation talks underway this week, there’s a lot at stake for farmers and ranchers in California.

Canada is the second-biggest export market for California agricultural products, and Mexico is the fifth. In 2015, California farmers and ranchers exported about $4.5 billion worth of goods to the two countries.

Kevin Kester, a fifth-generation California rancher, says NAFTA has been good for business.

"I get more per pound because of the overall demand generated by trade agreements overseas like NAFTA," he says.

Kester doesn’t want U.S. trade representatives messing that up as they push for better deals -- and he’s in a position to help ensure they don't. Kester represents the beef industry on the committee that advises the U.S. government on agricultural trade policy.

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"Under NAFTA we have zero tariffs and no trade barriers whatsoever," he says, "so it’s kind of hard to improve upon that."

California asparagus farmers, on the other hand, see a lot of room for improvement.

“At the turn of the century, asparagus acreage in California was hovering around 36,000 acres," says California Asparagus Commission director Cherie Watte. "Today we are under about 8,000 acres.”

She says NAFTA increased competition from Mexico because of cheaper labor, and that's one major reason asparagus growers in California are struggling. Watte's submitted her recommendations for changes to the agreement to U.S. trade representatives.

But, it’s not always as simple as U.S. interests versus Mexican or Canadian interests. Some agriculture is binational today.

“We’re seeing a lot of our producers going down into Mexico,” says California Farm Bureau Federation president Paul Wenger. “So when you start talking about doing anything that could hinder trade out of Mexico, those are really American growers, and often California growers.”

NAFTA re-negotiation talks are expected to go on for months.

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