Export challenges face North Carolina pork, sweet potatoes, tobacco

Trade agreements seen as vital for North Carolina pork, sweet potatoes and tobacco.

Pork, sweet potatoes and tobacco are key North Carolina agricultural commodities, and the export market is vital for the success of all three.

At this year’s Ag Development Forum held during the Southern Farm Show in Raleigh, representatives of the three commodities outlined challenges each faces in the export market. The industry representatives all agreed that trade agreements such as NAFTA are vital.

“A trade war would be cataclysmic,” said Andy Curliss, CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council. “We support modernizing our trade agreements, but we do not want anyone to do harm to us or the rest of agriculture. Our trading relationships are well established. We are optimistic about the future. While there is a lot of talk, we believe that we will get through.  We will modernize, and it will set the stage for continued opportunity.”

Both NAFTA and the Korean trade agreements are vital to the U.S. pork industry. Curliss said Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Canada and China are U.S. pork’s main export markets. He said NAFTA is important because Mexico is a significant trading partner, particularly for hams.

“Mexico loves hams. We don’t take a position on walls, but if there is a wall between the U.S.  and Mexico, we’re going to cut a hole the size of a ham in that wall,” he said.

For tobacco, there is no shortage of negativity in both the U.S. and abroad, said Mike Ligon, vice president of corporate affairs for Universal Corporation. “The challenge: the industry has a bull’s eye on its back,” he said.

Ligon said the negativity once focused on health and marketing, but it has now moved into the social area. Such issues as child labor and worker rights are a real challenge for tobacco farmers. Ligon said U.S. tobacco farmers are doing a good job embracing these challenges which helps them in the export market.

“A lot of the time we think the Food and Drug Administration is a pain in our side. In our view the FDA provides us an opportunity that the World Health Organization does not provide. We have an opportunity to voice our opinion with them. With the World Health Organization, they don’t want us in the same country much less the same room,” Ligon said.

For U.S. tobacco exports, the World Health Organization still presents the greatest challenge, he explained.

For sweet potatoes, loss of market share is a challenge.

“It’s not because we can’t supply because we have the supply in North Carolina to be able to maintain our share. Forty percent of our product is exported so we must maintain that. The challenge that we have is technology in the hands of competitor countries. We must stay on top of our advancement in technology,” said Kelly McIver, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.

Bill Graban, CEO of Prime Lumber Company in Thomasville, N.C., was also on the program and said the long term outlook for hardwood lumber in the United States is optimistic because the millennial generation is just beginning to enter into the market and their buying peak won’t come until 2040. A growing middle class in China also helps the demand for U.S hardwood exports, he said.

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