Exports provide a vital financial contribution to America’s agricultural producers — on average, about a third of U.S. farm income. Half of our country’s annual soybean crop is sold abroad.
But while those global connections are now a familiar and central part of Nebraska’s agricultural sector, it wasn’t always this way. In trying to market products overseas, American agriculture long faced daunting obstacles abroad in the form of high tariffs and non-tariff barriers. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that many of those barriers finally came down through international negotiations.
The key American negotiator who achieved that breakthrough was Clayton Yeutter. A native of Eustis, Nebraska, Yeutter provided all-important leadership in “kicking down the doors when it came to agricultural trade,” Mike Johanns, a former Nebraska governor and U.S. secretary of agriculture, has said.
People are also reading…
When Nebraska’s economy benefits from robust sales of corn and beef abroad, “we can thank Dr. Yeutter for that,” said Joseph Weber, an associate professor in the College of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Weber is the author of a new book, “Rhymes with Fighter: Clayton Yeutter, American Statesman,” published by the University of Nebraska Press.
Yeutter, who died in 2017 at age 86, “had more of an impact on global economic development over the past half century than any elected official,” Weber said last week in a UNL event honoring Yeutter’s life and legacy.
Yeutter stood out for his notable combination of talents. He had a keen understanding of agriculture — Yeutter “never left the farm,” his friend and Nebraska business leader Duane Acklie once noted — as well as economics, law and politics. He held three degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: a bachelor’s, a law degree and a Ph.D. in agricultural economics. Remarkably, he pursued those last two degrees simultaneously.
Yeutter held Cabinet posts including U.S. trade representative and secretary of agriculture in the 1980s and ’90s. He earlier had been the CEO of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and, in the late 1960s, was chief of staff for then-Gov. Norbert Tiemann.
At the UNL event last week, Warren Maruyama, who worked with Yeutter in the U.S. Trade Representative office and at a Washington, D.C., law firm, explained how Yeutter played a central role in opening trade with Canada, which led to a dramatic increase in U.S. trade with both Canada and Mexico in the 1990s. Yeutter showed particular skill in opening the Japanese market to U.S. beef, Maruyama said.
Until Yeutter’s determined efforts in the 1980s in international negotiations, agriculture had been at the periphery of discussions, hamstringing U.S. export ability, Maruyama said.
Agriculture is particularly vulnerable to trade barriers and “really needs trade deals,” he told the UNL audience. “They open markets and bring some of the barriers under control.”
The Nebraska Farm Bureau has pointed to the practical benefits from the state’s export trade. Every dollar in agricultural exports generates $1.28 in additional economic activities such as transportation, financing, warehousing and production. So, when Nebraska ag producers sold $5.8 billion overseas in 2019, those sales generated additional economic activity here of about $7.4 billion.
Yeutter devoted great energy to boosting public awareness of the global marketplace’s importance for Nebraska agriculture. UNL has pursued that mission by creating the Yeutter Institute in 2017, to give students a broad-based understanding of economic, legal and agricultural dimensions relating to trade. The institute’s faculty includes three endowed professors respectively in the disciplines in which Yeutter held UNL degrees: agriculture, economics and law.
Yeutter, Weber told the UNL audience, “opened the world to global trade as never before.” That legacy provides ongoing benefits to our state and deserves understanding and appreciation by future generations of Nebraskans.