Free Trade Agreements are the talk of the town — in Washington, D.C., that is — and among the leaders of agricultural organizations across the country.

But for folks fortunate enough to have a life beyond the ups-and-downs of national politics, the acronym ‘FTA’ doesn’t really mean much.

Trade issues, understandably, seem to get pushed to the background of farmers’ thoughts. Foreign trade is not immediately tangible. It doesn’t weigh in on day-to-day decision-making in farm operations, like cost increases and regulations do. And, many farmers assume trade issues are out of their hands.

But, America’s farmers and ranchers have a huge stake in global trade and the current FTAs with Korea, Colombia and Panama that are pending before Congress. Combined, the three agreements represent nearly $2.5 billion in U.S. agriculture exports. These FTAs should be in the forefront of every farmer’s and rancher’s thoughts.

Not playground politics

I recently had the opportunity to visit Panama and Colombia with a delegation of Farm Bureau leaders to show support for the pending U.S. trade agreements with both of the countries. The trip coincided with Farm Bureau’s efforts to get Congress to pass the Panama, Colombia and Korea free trade agreements as quickly as possible.

We met with government representatives, U.S. embassy officials, industry leaders and agricultural producers in Panama and Colombia to reinforce our support for the FTAs.

Face-to-face meetings best

While e-mailing, texting, tweeting and video conferencing all have their place in the modern world, for me nothing is better than a face-to-face meeting and a firm handshake. Being in the same room with the Colombians and Panamanians led to a fuller discussion on the challenges with the FTAs, while building trust with one another.

Both countries feel frustration that they negotiated these trade agreements in good faith four-plus years ago. They don’t understand why the U.S. has held them up for so long. They want to be our trading partners, but, as one Colombian official told me, while they would rather source their agriculture products from the U.S., they can’t wait forever.

In the meantime, our competition is going into these markets and establishing business and trade relations with Korea, Colombia and Panama, making it more difficult for us once our FTAs are passed. We won’t be able to swoop in and say “We’re ready now, drop those countries and trade with us instead.” This isn’t the schoolyard and Korea’s not biding its time with the European Union until America feels like playing.

Blackfoot to Bocas del Toro

Colombia is the top South American export market for the U.S. But, from 2008-2009, our exports dropped almost 50 percent because of the stalled FTA. The U.S. market share peaked in Colombia in 2008 at 46 percent, but by 2010 it had fallen to 24 percent. Without a signed agreement, Korea (the fifth largest trade market in the world) and Panama are likely to follow suit. We’ve put ourselves in the position of fighting a defensive battle in markets that have already been negotiated for our products.

This is not only a trade issue, it’s an important economic issue, a global competition issue and a matter of how the U.S. is viewed by other countries. It’s so important, that the American Farm Bureau has started a national campaign called “Trade Matters” urging Congress and the administration to pass all three FTAs by the end of summer. To learn more about the campaign and have your voice heard by Congress, visit:

Tomorrow, when you are out tending to your beef cows, planting cotton or picking cherries, think about where your products could likely end up. From Blackfoot, Idaho, the self-described potato capital of the world, to Bocas del Toro in Panama, we are operating in a global market and the stakes are high for U.S. producers. Trade matters to American agriculture and affects all farmers and ranchers.