Top US ag negotiator: Farm exports likely down $1B

CHUCK BARTELS, Associated Press

STUTTGART, Ark. -- The nation's top agricultural negotiator said Tuesday that he expects farm exports to be down between $1 billion and $2 billion this year because of the drought.

The tighter supply of grains, and the resulting higher price of feed, is driving up beef and poultry costs, though not to the point that international buyers are fleeing in droves, U.S. Chief Agricultural Negotiator Isi Siddiqui said.

The U.S. exported $137 billion in agricultural products last year, and after this year's falloff, sales are projected to hit $143 billion in 2013, Siddiqui said. He added that he doesn't believe a one-year dip would lead to a lasting slowdown in sales to Asia, where China is a major buyer of U.S. dairy and meat, or elsewhere.

"There has been a lot of demand. The last two years our exports were at the highest levels ever," Siddiqui said. He noted that demand for animal protein was on the rise and that the U.S. sold more than $7 billion in pork and more than $5 billion in beef last year.

On a three-day tour through Arkansas _ the country's top rice-producing state _ Siddiqui said rice exports to Iraq remain stalled. The Iraqi government stopped U.S. rice imports in 2010 over alleged quality issues. Siddiqui said talks are continuing and he hopes the market reopens, noting that weather problems resulted in damaged rice grains and precipitated the quality issue.

Siddiqui, a presidential appointee in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, spoke to The Associated Press before touring Riceland Foods Inc., a farmer-owned cooperative and the largest rice shipper in Arkansas, which produces half of the nation's rice. He said he also is looking at how Brazil and other countries outsell the U.S. in regards to rice.

Working to knock down tariffs and agree on quality issues are generally key to steady trade, he added.

Russia, for example, halted U.S. poultry imports in 2010 when Russia began barring chlorine from being used to sanitize chicken. Siddiqui said negotiators worked out new systems for cleaning poultry, such as using lactic acid, and sales resumed after six months though at lower levels. Poultry producers value trade with Russia in part because the country imports primarily dark meat, which is in abundant supply due to Americans' preference for white meat.

Siddiqui said much of his time is spent hammering out such agreements.

"My job is to help resolve those trade droughts and ... ensure (trade) barriers cannot be used for protectionist purposes," he said.

Siddiqui also plans to visit the Little Rock headquarters of Heifer International, a charity that helps people in developing countries become self-sustaining through farming. On Monday, he visited northwest Arkansas, where leading meat producer Tyson Foods Inc. is based. He also held meetings with commodity groups about opening markets to American rice, poultry and other products.