WASHINGTON — The U.S. wheat industry is reacting with disappointment after President Donald Trump said that Japan, their No. 1 customer, doesn’t really want to buy their grain.

According to White House transcripts, Trump made the comments Aug. 13 while speaking about energy during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania:

“Many car plants — they’re coming in from Japan. I told Prime Minister Abe — great guy. I said, ‘Listen, we have a massive deficit with Japan.’ They send thousands and thousands — millions — of cars. We send them wheat. Wheat. (Laughter.) That’s not a good deal. And they don’t even want our wheat. They do it because they want us to at least feel that we’re OK. You know, they do it to make us feel good.”

A White House spokesman directed questions to USDA and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Requests seeking comment were not returned.

“The president was on a campaign speech and speaking, as he normally does, off the top of his head,” Chandler Goule, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers, told the Capital Press. “What’s most unfortunate, in my mind, is he was sitting here in the last couple months talking about how all our farmers in the United States are doing great, but yet, they’re not and they’re suffering.”

Goule said Trump’s comments were “very frustrating.” He said the president claims to be continually supporting farmers, but started a trade war, and then directly attacks “the bread basket commodity of the United States.”

“Do I want to say that it was probably speaking before you think?” Goule said. “Yes, it probably was, but you’re the president of the United States and the farmers and ranchers of this country are who put you in office. To have you attack a commodity that is high-quality and in high demand ... and that truly depends on export markets is really just irresponsible.”

”I disagree with the President’s comments and stand by our wheat growers in Eastern Washington,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said. “We value our relationship with Japan and are committed to providing the high quality wheat they need. We pride ourselves in producing the best wheat in the world and will continue to lead on cutting-edge research to help with global food security.”

In a statement, the Oregon Wheat Growers League said it was “profoundly disappointed” in Trump’s comments.

“The President’s dismissive statements ... demonstrated that he doesn’t fully appreciate the 70 years of efforts by generations of wheat growers to build the great relationships we have with our customers in Japan,” the league stated.

Relationships between Japanese millers and U.S. farmers began in 1949, when the league organized a trade delegation to investigate expanding wheat sales.

Japan is the No. 1 market for U.S. wheat, and the No. 2 market for soft white wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest, the league said. U.S. wheat has a 50% market share in Japan.

“Our customers in Japan don’t buy our wheat because they are doing us a favor or to make us feel good, they buy our wheat because we have built a relationship with them, earned their trust, listened to their needs, and provided great customer service,” the league stated.

“This is not a situation in which they’re simply buying what can be close to $1 billion worth of wheat a year for political reasons,” said Steve Mercer, vice president of communications for U.S. Wheat Associates, the overseas marketing arm for the industry. “This is a need and a desire on the part of their industry to purchase U.S. wheat.”

Japan has purchased an average of 2.91 million metric tons in each of the last five years, Mercer said.

Wheat farmers are at a trading disadvantage with Japan because Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty. Competing wheat-producing countries such as Canada and Australia remained in the agreement. As part of that agreement, those nations with see Japanese tariffs on wheat reduced in coming years.

The wheat industry has been working with the U.S. Trade Representative as negotiators develop a new trade agreement with Japan, said Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission.

Trump’s comments do not reflect the commission’s conversations with the USTR, he said.

“We are pleased that PNW wheat is in demand around the world,” said Blaine Jacobson, executive director of the Idaho Wheat Commission. “The PNW is blessed with superb soil and the perfect climate for growing wheat and we grow more than we can consume domestically, so it becomes part of the trade battles. I would imagine most countries would rather be self-sufficient in the foods they eat, rather than having to import so much.”

Squires doesn’t foresee a negative reaction from Japan based on Trump’s comments.

”They understand where their wheat comes from, the relationships we have,” he said. “The President is trying to get a trade agreement with Japan. Maybe this is one of his ways of going about doing that.”

”We appreciate many of the things that the Trump administration has done for agriculture, but we sincerely hope that the President will take the time to learn about and appreciate the great success story and heritage that has been built between wheat growers in the U.S. and our customers in Japan,” the Oregon league stated.

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