RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
President Donald Trump made his view of the North American Free Trade Agreement clear during the presidential election.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: NAFTA was the worst trade deal in the history - it's, like, the history of this country.
MONTAGNE: Trump blames NAFTA for the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs. Now his administration is demanding changes during current negotiations, changes that may be difficult for Mexico and Canada to accept. As NPR's John Ydstie reports, that's making many American farmers and ranchers nervous.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: In the fellowship hall of a Lutheran church on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Chip Councell, a local farmer, is singing the praises of the lunch the church ladies just served to a trade delegation from Taiwan.
CHIP COUNCELL: This is truly a local meal. Local sweet corn, tomatoes, crab cakes from the local rivers...
YDSTIE: This little white church sits in the middle of corn and soybean fields on America's rich farm land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. Councell raises corn, soybeans and wheat. His ancestors began farming here in 1690.
COUNCELL: My son farms with us in the operation, and he is the 11th generation.
YDSTIE: And Councell says in today's world, U.S. farmers have to look abroad for markets.
COUNCELL: Ninety six percent of the world's population lives outside of our borders. We are very blessed in this country to have productive farm land, productive agricultural system. And if we are going to grow and prosper, then the outside of our borders - that is our market.
YDSTIE: Canada and Mexico, America's NAFTA partners, are two of the biggest markets for U.S. farmers. For instance, Mexico is the No. 1 buyer of U.S. corn. So Councell, a past president of the U.S. Grains Council, says he and a lot of other corn farmers were alarmed when candidate Trump attacked NAFTA, a trade deal that has opened the door for U.S. corn exports to Mexico and Canada. He says he has been told by Trump administration officials that they understand NAFTA's importance for agriculture.
COUNCELL: One of the main goals that we've been told by the administration is to do no harm to agriculture. Having said that, unfortunately, if we look back over time in history, if there are trade disputes among countries, easily, agriculture is the one that gets hit first and hit the hardest.
YDSTIE: Trade expert Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics agrees.
CHAD BOWN: Yes, I think it's inevitable that agriculture will suffer collateral damage if the NAFTA agreement is terminated or somehow ends up being in much diminished form. Agriculture has been such a success story for the United States.
YDSTIE: And not just for corn exports.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's give Mike another big round of applause.
YDSTIE: At the North Dakota Stockmen's Association meeting in Fargo recently, a roomful of ranchers in big hats and pearl button shirts heard speakers talk about the relationship between exports and prices. Julie Ellingson, who raises cattle with her husband south of Mandan, is the group's executive vice president.
JULIE ELLINGSON: Beef exports drive about $300 of value per animal. And so that is real dollars and cents to the farmers and ranchers across North Dakota not only because of the pounds of meat that goes across the borders, the kinds of beef that those foreign consumers are purchasing - things that don't have as much value here in the United States.
YDSTIE: Cuts like tongue, liver and kidneys are more valuable in Mexico, which buys $800 million worth of U.S. beef a year. Canada imports a billion dollars' worth a year, including a lot of middle cuts, like steaks and roasts. NAFTA pushed tariffs to zero, virtually eliminating the barriers to the beef trade between the U.S. and its two neighbors. The Trump administration has said its goal is to make sure U.S. farmers don't lose in the renegotiation of NAFTA. But back amid the cornfields of Maryland's Eastern Shore, Chip Councell says he's not sure how it will turn out.
COUNCELL: I don't think anybody knows. We're optimistic. We're hopeful but a little bit nervous, as well.
YDSTIE: John Ydstie, NPR News.