Lt. Governor Mike Cooney was in Mexico last week to meet with some of the country’s largest brewers who, he says, feel shaken up over recent trade policy changes in the U.S.
Montana is the second largest producer of barley in the U.S., essential to brewing beer. Cooney advocated for the state’s barley growers as a part of a delegation sponsored by the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee and the U.S. Grain Council.
Rosie Costain talked with Cooney about reaffirming the Montana-Mexico trade relationship following the late-September announcement of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which will replace NAFTA.
Mike Cooney: We met with the two largest brewing companies in Mexico. One is Heineken of Mexico and the other one is Constellation, and then we had the opportunity to meet with craft brewers.
Rosie Costain: Why barley specifically? You mentioned that we're one of the biggest barley producers, but why focus on barley?
MC: Well, simply because it was an opportunity to go down and really talk to the customers, which are the beer producers in Mexico. And beer is a big, big item. Most of Montana's barley is destined for malting, and malting means that it's going to be used in beer, spirits or food products. And so it's important that, you know, we have great customers for our malted barley in the United States but we also produce a lot for around the world. And as we were down there they were talking about how they can get barley from from Europe as well. So we just can't sit back and think that our barley is going to continue to be used without us making sure that we're marketing it properly, making sure that we're giving them the best product, highest quality, which we do, and we need to get it to them in the most cost efficient way.
RC: What are the current trade relations like between Mexico and Montana?
MC: I think, you know, between the state of Montana and Mexico, I think we've demonstrated that we're very good trading partners but of course trade is not something that the state can control. We can speak out on it. We can express our positions on it, and we can build our personal ties. But when it boils right down to it, it's the federal government that is going to, you know, really tell us what our trade policies are.
And I can tell you when I was in Mexico I think they appreciated us being there because there is some concern over what direction the United States is going. They hear some of the rhetoric coming out of Washington D.C., coming from tweets and so forth, and it really has them confused as to what the overall relationship with the United States is.
RC: You didn't go on this visit alone. You were also accompanied by the director of the Montana Department of Agriculture, the executive vice president of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, and a farmer from Fort Benton. How did they feel about trade relations with Mexico under NAFTA, the previous agreement?
MC: You know, I think they were fine with it. You know, one of the things with trade that is so important is the stability. You've got to have some sense of stability because producers need to understand what they're going to be - they just can't plant crops and hope they sell them. They really have to plant crops that they know they're going to be able to market and sell. So I mean, I think NAFTA, whether you like NAFTA or you thought it needed to be retooled or what have you, it still brought a sense of stability to the market and that was OK.
RC: What was the impression you got about how they felt about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement?
MC: I think everybody is somewhat relieved that there is an agreement. Nobody seemed to really have a clear idea what the details of the agreement were. But I think people are somewhat relieved that it's at least been settled and now we're just trying to figure out what the details are.
RC: Are there any concerns that you've seen arise from what they've seen of the agreement so far?
MC: I think they see things as being a little bit, you know, shaken up up here and it's not business as usual. And so that causes them some concern.
RC: How do you think your visit there played into that feeling?
MC: I think they viewed my visit as having a calming effect on those sorts of things. Here you had, you know, an elected official from Montana, you know, a state that they've dealt with, the industries that we're down there talking to, and I think they thought that that was a good sign that I was down there with the delegation. And I think they took that as a very positive sign. Just let our partners down there know that, "Hey we're here. We want to work with you. We want to grow the product you're interested in and we want to continue to do business with you, and we're willing to do that as best we can."