Michigan black beans served in Mexico, farmers need stable trade
The black beans served at dinner all over Mexico likely came from a Michigan farm.
And dairy farmers in the Great Lakes State say they’re grateful to families south of the border who drink so much milk they stabilize dairy prices as demand for milk declines in the United States.
“Most people don’t have a clue that we trade so much with Mexico,” said Steve Findlay, 53, a third-generation farmer from Reese who grows sugar beets, black beans, navy beans, soybeans, wheat and corn. “Probably half our black beans go to Mexico. And we’ve worked a lifetime to build this market with Mexico.”
While elected officials focus on China, farmers talk about their appreciation for Mexico during this period of trade uncertainty, as Congress considers a revised deal with America’s border nations.
“It’s easy to put Canada and Mexico on the back burner, but a majority of our products end up in Canada or Mexico. Asking a Michigan farmer to choose between China and USMCA (United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) is like asking a parent who their favorite kid is. We need them both,” said Dan Keenan, 36, a fifth-generation farmer from Merrill who grows corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and black beans.
“Michigan is a major producer of dry edible beans — white, pinto, navy, black. And soybeans? We grew roughly 2.27 million acres in Michigan in 2018. One acre is roughly the size of a football field.” he said. “There’s a large disconnect between the farm community and the general population.”
Farmers say they watch how people talk about Mexico and worry.
Everybody wants to see the trade debate in the rearview mirror, Keenan said. “Trade wars have negative effects. Farmers are a resilient bunch but you can only do this for so long. We understood we wouldn’t sneak out without a black eye. We’ve adjusted our budgets and tightened our belts. But the longer this all goes on, the tougher it’s going to be to handle some of these uncertainties.”
Good news came earlier this month, when President Donald Trump lifted steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada and Mexico and announced the two countries would lift what had been retaliatory tariffs on a number of goods. That was seen as helping clear the way for approval by U.S. and Canadian lawmakers of the new agreement meant to update NAFTA.
While that was positive for U.S. automakers, whose material costs went up because of the tariffs, it was a big deal for Michigan farmers, too.
Ken Nobis, 74, is a dairy farmer from St. Johns who raises 1,100 Holstein cows with his brother and his son. Theirs is a legacy of farming in Michigan that goes so far back it was difficult to track generations.
“Every drop of milk produced in this country has to have a home, so exports are very important to us,” he said. “We don’t gain a lot of sales per capita within this country. For our market to grow, we have to look to foreign markets. And Mexico is the No. 1 export customer for dairy in the U.S.”
Most people just don’t understand the economic ties, said Nobis, who has been among farmers traveling back and forth to grow dairy sales south of the border.
“It’s super important to us. They learn things from us. We learn things from them,” he said. “It’s a very cordial relationship. We work together and help each other.”
Jose De Nigris, 46, of Clarkston, as president of U.S. operations for Monterey, Mexico-based Katcon, employs 100 workers at the office in Auburn Hills as part of a global operation that designs, engineers and manufactures exhaust systems and catalytic converters. He said trade dialogue and dynamics with Mexico have changed dramatically over the past two years. “It’s concerning, not knowing how and when the rules of the game will change.”
Farmers are waiting it out.
“Thing is, black beans don’t qualify for the subsidy payments they talk about,” Findlay said. “We just assume this is going to work out. I thought it would be taken care of in March or April. Now the guys are saying it’s going to be next summer.”
‘Taken for granted’
Martha Barcena, ambassador of Mexico to the United States, traveled to Michigan on May 13, international outreach she noted hasn’t been done in years, to meet with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan business leaders to remind them of the strong cross-border ties.
“People in Mexico, we understand perfectly well the importance of the U.S. for us, and that our future is tied to the U.S., in all senses — economic, social, cultural,” she said during an interview with the Free Press. “In the U.S., they do not understand this. They think Mexico is not important. Politicians travel to Israel, to Taiwan, to Japan, to Brazil. They do not realize Mexico is much more important. It’s taken for granted.”
Barcena has family ties to Grand Rapids with a great aunt who lived and died on the west side of the state as a Carmelite nun who lived in a cloistered monastery. “She was one of the eldest sisters of my grandfather. Her name as a nun was Maria Isabel.”
Barcena traveled to Grand Rapids after meetings in Detroit.
During the ambassador’s visit, she noted that former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder visited China half a dozen times and never Mexico. She extended an invitation to Whitmer.
“Trade between Mexico and Michigan, which was $68.6 billion in 2018, is almost the same as trade between the whole USA and Brazil,” Barcena said. “The number is impressive. “
In addition to agriculture, collaborating on automotive manufacturing is essential to survival, she said.
“There is no such thing as a Mexican car or an American car or a Canadian car,” she said. “These are North American cars. The automotive industry is totally integrated. Before a car is finally assembled, a part of a car crosses up to eight times across the border among the three countries.”
Alan Deardorff, professor of international economics at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, emphasized, “Mexico is a hugely important trading partner, as is Canada, for the state of Michigan.”
Bobby Leddy, deputy press secretary to Whitmer, provided a statement to the Free Press: “Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the country, exporting more than $200 million in agriculture products to Mexico in 2018. At a time when trade wars are cutting into farmers’ bottom lines, the need to level the playing field for Michigan farmers and provide financial certainty to their families has never been greater. From soybeans to cherries to black beans, Governor Whitmer is a strong partner for our state’s farmers and food producers to identify ways to support economic growth in every corner of our state while protecting our incredible natural resources.”
When asked to comment on the sensitive issue of immigration, Barcena said undocumented travel has plummeted and more Mexicans are returning to Mexico than ever. She questioned why America is blaming Mexico for a humanitarian crisis in Central America.
“It’s a huge misunderstanding,” Barcena said. “The challenge is both for Mexico and the U.S. because the situation in central America is dire — with no opportunity, problems of insecurity, drought.”
More than 140,000 jobs in Michigan depend on trade with Mexico in autos and agriculture, she noted.
“And we have a Mexican community in Michigan of almost 400,000,” Barcena said. “Some rhetoric in certain sectors is causing a lot of anxiety to our communities. Children are not attending schools, children are afraid to have their parents attend Parent Teacher Association meetings, children are feeling ashamed because they ask psychologists if their parents are rapists and murders or if their parents are going to be taken to jail. I think that’s unacceptable.”
She emphasized, “I want to say to the Mexican community: Be proud of your roots. Be proud of how much you contribute to this country. Be proud of how much you contribute to Mexico.”
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