In a difficult export market, bans on imports of U.S. grain make a bad situation that much worse. So, Brazil's March 20 announcement that it would reopen its market to shipments of U.S. wheat was good news for farmers.
On March 27, a Brazilian importer informed U.S. Wheat Associates, the wheat industry's marketing arm, that his company had purchased 15,000 metric tons of soft red winter wheat from a grain merchandiser in North Carolina. U.S. Wheat Associates says it expects more announcements soon.
A spokesman said the group hopes this marks the beginning of a new chapter in the troubled story of U.S. wheat trade with Brazil, the largest country in South America with a population of more than 180 million.
Brazil, an 8-million-metric-ton export market, first banned shipments of U.S. wheat in 1996, citing a variety of reasons, some of which seemed rather specious at the time.
Last October, the Brazilian government announced it was reopening its market to the three major classes U.S. wheat. Then, in February, it announced another ban, citing concerns about a wheat nematode. U.S. Wheat Associates asked the U.S. government for assistance.
USDA, working with the U.S. Trade Representative's office, invited the Brazilian government to send a technical team to review U.S. production and grain handling practices. The team made its report, and trade resumed on March 20.
No one is saying U.S. growers can capture all of the Brazilian market. But, hopes were raised when Brazil notified the Brazilian Millers Association that it was banning all Argentine plant products that came from areas of foot and mouth disease outbreaks.
The notice said plant products collected within 15 miles of points where foot and mouth disease has been detected would be allowed into Brazil only if accompanied by a certificate from the government of Argentina. The latter has confirmed 78 outbreaks of the disease.
According to U.S. Wheat Associates, Argentina was expected to provide nearly 7 million tons of wheat to Brazil this year. Of that, 3 million tons had been shipped when the ban was imposed. Whether the balance of the 4 million to 4.5 million tons comes from Argentina, the U.S. or other sources won't be known for some time.
In any case, it's clear that quick work by USDA and other U.S. government employees helped create an opening for U.S. growers to fill a potential market void caused by Argentina's misfortune.
This is government work at its best: experienced professionals stepping in where private industry can't to remove obstacles to the marketing of U.S. grain and other agricultural commodities.
It doesn't help, however, when the Bush administration continues to sprout rumors that this export program or that inspection effort will be eliminated to reduce spending so that it can make its tax cut program more palatable to Congress.
Government employees are accustomed to changing policies of new administrations. That's not new. But how do you convince employees to continue to work quickly and effectively on such issues when their jobs could be eliminated at any time to fit someone's budget or master strategy whim?