By Leroy Plagerman / For The Herald
Three generations of Plagermans have worked on the family dairy farm in my hometown of Lynden. When my father Arlyn started out in 1978, he understood that creating a thriving business can be daunting.
But he believed in the American dream, worked hard and succeeded. Now my children are poised to take over from me, as I did from my dad. They hope to maintain our family farm for generations to come but face the even more daunting challenge of uncertain trade policies.
Nationally, the dairy industry exports about 14 percent of its products. Washington state, meanwhile, exports about 40 percent of its products. We, like others in the state’s agriculture industry, depend on trade. Yet stability and open markets have been in short supply. Tariffs have driven up costs, boosted competitors and dried up markets we had worked for years to open.
Today, we are forced to operate based not on international demand, but on our survival instincts. In 1993, there were 1,600 dairy farms in Washington state. Now we have 375. That means 86 percent of our state’s dairy farms have shuttered, many of them recently. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Despite the trade war, we can immediately stabilize and normalize trade with our closest international partners to our north and south if we pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
Congress is likely to soon consider the USMCA, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). If ratified, the agreement will solidify our trade relationships with Mexico and Canada and ensure modern agriculture keeps pace with other interdependent industries, such as shipping, rail and even banking.
Under NAFTA, U.S. dairy exports to Mexico grew by roughly $56 million dollars a year. That number has now dropped for the first time since NAFTA went into effect in 1994, underscoring the urgency with which our congressional representatives must act to ensure ratification of this fair and transparent replacement agreement. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Washington, has been to my farm. She knows how important this is to our continued survival.
No farmer is more productive than the American farmer: We have created more from raw acreage, water and fertilizer than any other country on Earth.
We must fight to keep future generations on the farms they love, not only because they deserve to continue the legacies their families have built, but also because they are uniquely qualified to lead our businesses, communities and nation into a secure and hopeful future.
Leroy Plagerman is a Whatcom County dairy farmer and chairman of the Northwest Dairy Association Board.