Stephan Jones (left), director of the Washington State University Bread Lab, packages loaves for U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai (center) at the end of her tour on Thursday in Burlington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Stephan Jones (left), director of the Washington State University Bread Lab, packages loaves for U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai (center) at the end of her tour on Thursday in Burlington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

U.S. Trade Representative meets regional food producers

Katherine Tai talked trade with farmers from Western Washington and toured the WSU Bread Lab.

BURLINGTON — U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai toured the Washington State University Bread Lab here Thursday and met with local farmers and tribal leaders at the university’s Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center.

In opening remarks to more than 30 farmers, Tai said there’s no substitute for connecting directly with local producers.

“Not only do we work for President Biden, we work for you,” Tai said. “We need to understand who exactly we are negotiating on behalf of when we are in places like Tokyo and Brussels.”

An hour-long roundtable discussion with farmers and producers that included Democratic U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene of Medina and Rick Larsen of Everett was closed to the press.

Asked afterward about the farmers’ greatest concerns, Tai would only say they are seeking “more confidence in their access to markets.”

Larsen added that the region’s potato farmers are concerned about access to Mexico’s markets; dairy farmers are concerned about access to Canada; and shellfish growers hope to get back into the European Union market after it banned U.S. shellfish imports more than 10 years ago.

Local farmers and officials meet with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen in Mount Vernon on Thursday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Local farmers and officials meet with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen in Mount Vernon on Thursday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Tai was sworn in as the 19th United States Trade Representative in March. As a member of the president’s cabinet, she is the principal trade advisor, negotiator and spokesperson on U.S. trade.

Tai previously served as staff director for the trade subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. She played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. trade law, negotiations and trade agreements, including the recently re-negotiated U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

In May, Tai said the U.S. faces “very large challenges” as it seeks to forge a new trade agreement with China. The Biden administration and Tai are reviewing the U.S.-China Phase One trade agreement, which expires at the end of the year. Negotiated by the Trump administration, the deal was signed in January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic. China agreed to increase purchases of American products and services by at least $200 billion but fell short due to the pandemic.

The state’s manufacturing, aerospace and agricultural sectors have a stake in future trade negotiations.

Washington State University Bread Lab Director Stephan Jones speaks during a tour with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and members of Congress in Burlington on Thursday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Washington State University Bread Lab Director Stephan Jones speaks during a tour with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and members of Congress in Burlington on Thursday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“Washington is the most trade-dependent state in the union,” DelBene said. The region’s agricultural bounty includes potatoes, seafood, wine and forest products.

Tai said the “Biden administration is proud of the strides it has made during its first six month in office,” including job creation and an effort to improve the nation’s infrastructure.

“The administration is working across the economy with workers and trade policies to bring about prosperity that is more inclusive and more robust than what we had before,” Tai said.

The Senate is currently debating the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which proposes $109 billion in new investments for roads, bridges and related projects.

Tai and DelBene started the day with a tour of the WSU Bread Lab, led by the lab’s director, Stephen Jones.

Director Stephan Jones (right) explains to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai how wheat and grain are used at the Washington State University Bread Lab. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Director Stephan Jones (right) explains to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai how wheat and grain are used at the Washington State University Bread Lab. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Founded in 2011, the Bread Lab is a research facility focused on producing tastier, affordable and more sustainable strains of wheat, barley, rye and other grains. The lab, located off Highway 20 in Burlington, includes a baking kitchen, lab and milling facility. The nation’s harvest, Jones told Tai, includes two million acres of barley and 40 million acres of wheat.

Jones noted that wheat planted by former First Lady Michelle Obama on the White House grounds is from the Bread Lab.

DelBene thanked Tai for visiting Skagit County and meeting with local farmers. “Many people come to Seattle but don’t take the time to see the rest of the region,” said DelBene, who is on the trade subcommittee.

Summing up her visit, Tai said she was impressed by the “diversity and savvy of local producers in terms of how they see their roles in this community and the world economy,” adding that “to come out to America, to leave Washington, D.C.,” and meet with farmers, workers and members of Congress on their home turf was the best part of the job.

Later in the day, Tai led another closed roundtable with labor leaders and union representatives at the Seattle Machinists Hall.

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

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