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Published October 17, 2011, 05:25 AM

President welcomes South Korean president, ag leaders at trade agreements ceremony

WASHINGTON — When President Obama welcomed South Korean President Lee Myung-bak for a state visit Oct. 13 and celebrated the congressional approval of the South Korea, Colombia and Panama free trade agreements, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Bill Donald was among the invited guests at the arrival ceremony. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman were among the guests at that night’s state dinner.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — When President Obama welcomed South Korean President Lee Myung-bak for a state visit Oct. 13 and celebrated the congressional approval of the South Korea, Colombia and Panama free trade agreements, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Bill Donald was among the invited guests at the arrival ceremony. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman were among the guests at that night’s state dinner.

“It’s an honor,” Donald said while his cowboy hat shielded him from the rain and hid his ponytail during the 9 a.m. ceremony. “After a lot of hard work, I’m the guy coming in for the glory stroke.”

An NCBA official said that Donald, a Montana rancher, had been invited because the cattlemen’s group had been a key supporter of the agreements. A USDA spokesman said that Vilsack was invited to bring a guest and chose Stallman. Vilsack’s wife, Christie, is busy campaigning for a U.S. House seat in Iowa.

Although many sectors of American agriculture are expected to benefit from the tariffs that are reduced or eliminated under the three agreements, Donald was the only agriculture representative Agweek could find in the crowd on the South Lawn.

Donald said other farm group representatives may have left when rain was heavy — White House officials announced they would have to move the event inside and that invited guests only would be able to observe Lee’s motorcade as it arrived.

The rain stopped for a while, and White House officials went back to their original plan, sticking to it even though the rain came back. Donald said he also had attended an Oct. 12 luncheon for Lee at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at which New York strip steak was served.

Montana leaders

Despite the celebratory nature of the event, politics still were evident. Donald noted that he also would attend Lee’s speech at a joint session of Congress using a ticket provided by Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont. He also was scheduled to participate in a news conference with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who led the campaign for passage of the trade agreements, but also insisted on reauthorization of trade adjustment assistance for workers and farmers hurt by the trade agreements.

Baucus and Rehberg voted for all three agreements. But even though economists say that Montana’s wheat and beef industries will be among the biggest beneficiaries of the agreements, Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., voted against all three. Rehberg is challenging Tester for his Senate seat next year.

In a news release, Tester, an organic farmer, emphasized the impact the North American Free Trade Agreement has had on manufacturing jobs.

“NAFTA-style trade agreements like these have only led to the outsourcing of American jobs and resulted in the loss of our manufacturing base, and we ought to be doing everything we can to prevent those jobs from going to other countries,” Tester said.

NCBA said in a news release that the U.S. International Trade Commission said annual exports of U.S. beef to South Korea are expected to increase as much as $1.8 billion once the agreement is fully implemented. The South Korea agreement will phase out over 15 years South Korea’s 40 percent tariff on beef imports, with $15 million in tariff benefits for beef in the first year of the agreement alone and about $325 million in tariff reductions annually once fully implemented, NCBA said.

But R-CALF USA, a competing Montana-based group, fought against all three FTAs on grounds that they failed to address the unique, supply-sensitive nature of the U.S. cattle industry, failed to require beef exported from participating countries to actually come from cattle that originated in those countries, and failed to require imported beef from participating countries to meet identical food safety inspection standards required in the United States.

Polls show the race between Tester and Rehberg to be tight. One pollster said that Rehberg is unpopular, but Obama is more unpopular. Asked if signing the free trade agreements would reduce the antipathy toward Obama in rural America, Daniel said, “I might take a little more than this.”

But he added, “There’s a lot of animosity toward government in general, Congress in particular.”

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