U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue toured the Port of Vancouver on Wednesday and learned about the wheat, steel and other commodities exports handled at the port, but he also learned of the anxieties some in shipping industries have about the growing tensions between the U.S. and countries it trades with.
“You know, Julianna, our steel slabs are what started all this,” Perdue said to Port of Vancouver CEO Julianna Marler as their shuttle van drove by stacks of steel slabs en route to a Tidewater Barge Lines tug and barge docked at the port’s Berth 4.
“What can we do about it, though?” Marler replied after a quick laugh.
Perdue toured the port and met with leaders from the ports of Longview and Kalama as well as officials from shipping and agricultural industries. The Fourth of July visit was part of the secretary’s fourth “Back to Our Roots” tour to communities and farms across the United States.
In his discussions, Perdue heard not only about the volume of steel and chemicals and Northwest grains shipped in and out of Columbia River ports, but also the concerns those exporters and their international trading partners have about growing tensions over trade.
By the end of the week, China, Mexico and Canada are expected to add tariffs to around $50 billion of U.S. exports, including wheat and other agricultural products.
China, in particular, is targeting American agricultural products with tariffs on wheat, rice and pork and canceling large orders of American soybeans.
“Talking with our overseas trading partners, from a trade policy perspective, I would say the message we get from them is really a desire to have consistency in our trading policy,” Port of Vancouver Chief Commercial Officer Alex Strogen told Perdue during a roundtable discussion. “That allows them to build direct relationships to be successful but to also make long-term investments to be successful.”
Nearly half of U.S. wheat exports and more than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports move through the Columbia River and Puget Sound grain terminals.
The Port of Vancouver moves about 10 percent of America’s wheat to international markets. Last year, nearly 2.6 million metric tons of wheat was exported out of the Port of Vancouver alone.
Several other attendees also spoke highly of their relationship with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the work of the Corps maintaining the Columbia River shipping channel, which seemed to take Perdue by surprise.
“That’s great to hear,” Perdue said. “ It’s very contrary to what I hear most places.”
Perdue also said American farmers have “legitimate anxiety” about the possibility of China putting new tariffs on apple, cherry and wheat exported from the United States. Perdue believes Americans are supportive of President Donald Trump’s efforts to put pressure on the Chinese to improve their trading practices, but he acknowledges they have limits.
“As patriotic as American agriculture producers are, you can’t pay the bills with patriotism,” he said.
During previous stops along his tours, Perdue has said the government has tools to assist farmers. But during his visit to the Port of Vancouver, he acknowledged that while the commodities growing and shipping industries are connected the latter won’t get help, at least from the Department of Agriculture.
“It’s painful in business, as well, and the people who serve the farmers and the people who handle those commodities and the people who ship these commodities — but it’s not really going to be possible from the USDA,” he said. “And we recognize there’s limited business and business interruptions for them as well, but we’re statutorily confined to the producers of these commodities”