Two weeks ago, my brother, my wife and I, and our farm crew loaded five boxcars with pinto beans grown on our family farm in North Dakota. Bound for Mexico, these boxcars followed seven others that also headed south earlier this year. More will go soon.
Each boxcar translates into tens of thousands of dollars in sales as well as jobs. So it’s a really good deal for my farm and for our community.
Yet our political leaders never have been more blind to these benefits—or more quick to condemn international trade in general and the North American Free Trade Agreement in particular.
The problem may be that they don’t hear enough stories like the one I’m able to tell about our farm.
Like so many American farmers, my family depends on the ability to export what we grow, whether it’s corn, soybeans, wheat, or pinto beans. Without customers in other countries, we’d have to cut our production by about a third. This would devastate our ability to make a living, and it would wreck the economy of our nation’s farm belt.
What happens when Mexicans buy our pinto beans? They pay us money, of course. And then we pour it into local businesses, from the dealer who sells and services our tractors and machinery to the insurance agents who protect us against losses to all of the other vendors who supply our operation.
The income also allows us to make personal purchases, including a recent home renovation that contributed to the livelihoods of local carpenters. We make charitable donations to the hospital. We pay property taxes, which keep the schools open.
We hire workers, too—and in the case of the pinto beans, we hire a special kind of worker to process our crops.
North Dakota has a criminal-justice problem: Non-violent drug offenders increasingly fill our prisons. We’re learning that merely keeping inmates locked up doesn’t help them defeat the challenges of behavior and addiction that put them behind bars in the first place—and that we need to find creative ways to help them move into lives of employment and productivity.
In other words, they need jobs. And that’s what our farm provides. Through a special program, we pay these laborers a fair wage to bag our pinto beans and they begin to learn the habits they’ll need for success in life.
I won’t claim that trade with Mexico will end crime in North Dakota—but I will say that it helps at the margins, in addition to all of the more obvious ways it improves our quality of life.
Unfortunately, a lot of politicians fail to appreciate these benefits.
Republicans and Democrats are poised in the next few weeks to confer their presidential nomination upon Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who have become two of the loudest anti-trade voices in the nation. That disappoints me. I will most likely vote for Trump but appeal to him to rethink his stand on trade and realize just how vital trade is to U.S. agriculture and our country’s economy.
These anti-trade positions would be a disaster not just for me and my pinto beans, but for farmers across the country. Nobody ever wins a trade war—and we don’t want to start one.
We’re better off doing business with the 95 percent of the people who live outside our borders.
About ten years ago, I visited Mexico City as part of a farmer delegation. Our purpose was to meet some of the people who buy what we grow in North Dakota, developing the relationships that have worked so well for so long.
Outside our conference venue, a group of Mexican farmers protested against us. They wanted their government to ban the importation of American pinto beans.
You know why? Because when American farmers enjoy access to foreign markets, we can compete with anybody in the world.
I wish our major presidential candidates understood this truth—and believed that rather than shrinking in fear from the world economy, the United States should embrace the great opportunity of free trade and lead.