U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says big shipping hubs like the BNSF Railway Logistics Park he visited in Edgerton, Kan., Tuesday have helped drive an increase in agricultural exports over the past six years.
But a labor slowdown at West Coast ports could jeopardize that growth, Vilsack says.
“At a time when we’re all trying to get trade to expand, to try to open up Asian markets that will have literally hundreds of millions of new middle class consumers that will want the products shipped through this particular facility, we can’t afford to send a message to the rest of the world we’re not a reliable supplier,” says Vilsack.
Vilsack says Labor Secretary Thomas Perez has been sent in to help mediate the dispute, which he says has come down to a single arbitrator.
Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee Pat Roberts of Kansas joined Vilsack on the tour of BNSF and echoed the secretary's concerns that the port slowdown could send U.S. trade partners the wrong message.
Roberts added that trade is one area the new Congress thinks it can work with the president.
But Vilsack and Roberts don't see eye-to-eye on what's next for U.S.-Cuba relations. Vilsack sees potential for Midwest farmers especially if the U.S. can reach a trade deal with Cuba.
“The reality is we used to do roughly $600 million of business in that country. It’s about a $1.7 billion dollar market. Wheat is certainly one area, poultry is another area, soybeans is another area,” says Vilsack.
But while Roberts says he'll schedule a hearing at the request of Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Democrat formerly in charge of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he remains skeptical of trade with Cuba.
“This is a very repressive regime," says Roberts. "Each time we took a commodity group, we would run into these state-owned enterprises, and you couldn’t get credit arranged, you couldn’t get a lot of things set up like you normally do in a trade situation with a friendly country.”