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Michigan ag leaders warn of job cuts if Trump leaves Korea trade deal

Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash
Korea bought 94 million pounds of U.S. cheese last year. Losing those customers could hurt Michigan farmers.

Ken Nobis is a dairy farmer in central Michigan, and right now he’s worried about where South Koreans are going to get their cheese.

“They purchase a lot of cheese,” Nobis says. He’s not kidding: Korea is one of the biggest markets for U.S. cheese in the world, buying a whopping 94 million poundsof it last year alone. “And if they’re not purchasing that cheese, it goes into storage in this country. You can’t turn dairy production on and off with the flip of a switch. The cows, you got to milk ‘em 365 days of the year.”  

Now, Nobis and other agricultural workers around the state are keeping an anxious eye on President Trump, who campaigned on tearing up trade deals he feels are bad for U.S.e workers, and is reportedly preparing topull out of a free trade agreement with South Korea as early as this week.

“Whether it’s directly from Michigan, or Arizona, or Wisconsin, it still has a direct impact on our prices,” Nobis says. As the president of the Michigan Milk Producers Association, he’s riding out a tough global dairy market that’s been struggling the last few years. Europe is flooding that market with more and more milk products, and the U.S. has to compete with other dairy giants like Australia and New Zealand for Korea’s business.

That could become much harder if the U.S. backs out of its 2012 free trade deal with Korea. Without it, “U.S. cheese exports to Korea would be subject to the pre-FTA tariff of 36%, while all of our key competitors could keep shipping millions of pounds of cheese duty-free,” theU.S. Dairy Export Councilwarns.

If farmers like Nobis can no longer sell to Korea, that’ll hit close to home.

“We can’t cut supply to match the fall of demand that would happen, if Korea quit buying dairy products from this country,” he says. “It could have an impact globally. Because we would in turn try to find another customer, and the way you try to find another customer is you cut prices. It’s very tenuous.”  

Nobis and Michigan agricultural leaders, including the Michigan Pork Producers and Agri-Business Association, are hoping President Trump gets the message.

“A withdrawal from the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement would have an immediate and devastating impact on Michigan agriculture, dealing a massive blow to a leading U.S. export market for pork, dairy and other products,” they said in a statement. “In addition, a KORUS withdrawal will set a dangerous precedent that calls into question other existing free trade agreements that are critical for Michigan farmers and agribusinesses at a time of low commodity prices. We strongly urge the administration to reconsider this strategy, because a U.S. withdrawal from KORUS will cost jobs throughout rural Michigan, plain and simple.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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