Vilsack had the following to say about each deal:

• South Korea.

“While the United States used to be Korea’s largest trading partner, over the last decade we’ve fallen to fourth place behind China, the European Union and Japan. In that decade, our share of Korea’s import market has fallen from 21 percent to 9 percent.”

The FTA “will immediately eliminate duties on a majority of U.S. farm products exported to Korea.”

It should be noted that U.S. rice is not part of the Korean trade deal. 

• Colombia.

“Two objectives were reached (under the FTA). It immediately provides vastly improved access to Colombia’s markets and really levels the playing field with respect to third-country competitors in the Colombian market.

“Colombia is already an important market for (U.S.) farmers and ranchers. But in 2010, we did almost $832 million in exports. We anticipate an increase of several hundred million dollars to that number.”

• Panama.

 “This basically acknowledges that duty-free trade must be a two-way street. (The FTA) is an important building block for our strategy to advance free trade not just to Panama, but the entire western hemisphere.

 “In 2010, we did about $450 million worth of agriculture exports to Panama. … We expect to see that increase by, hopefully, several hundred million dollars.”

Asked why the Colombian deal took so long, Vilsack pointed to several things. 

“First, President Obama decided there was a need to strengthen the nature of the (FTAs). When he came into office, he (made) an aggressive effort to renegotiate portions of each agreement to make them better.

“There were some serious concerns about violence against labor leaders and lack of prosecution of such violence. We wanted to make sure the agreement provided basic protections.

“Once that was done, we were then faced with the dilemma of the House of Representatives essentially telling us they weren’t interested in dealing with individual trade agreements. They wanted all the agreements as a package…

 “When we were prepared to submit these as a package, it was pointed out that there would need to be commitment from Congress that there would be appropriate action on both the TAA and the Generalized System of Preferences (which provides preferential duty-free entry to the United States for up to 4,800 products from 129 beneficiary countries and territories). The GSP system, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, helps to support about 80,000 jobs in this country — so, it was important that be extended.

“We finally got commitments from the House very recently that they were willing to move those in conjunction with the FTAs. That allowed (Obama) to submit the FTAs to Congress.”

Once Congress passes the FTAs the focus will shift to ratification by governments in the three countries.

Vilsack was unsure how long that might take, “but I’m heartened by the fact that the president of South Korea will visit the United States in the next week, or so. It’s anticipated and expected that such a visit wouldn’t take place if … there isn’t going to be ratification.”

dbennett@farmpress.com