MCVILLE, N.D. — Dan Rorvig looks like a cattleman should look. Dressed in jeans, cowboy boots, a tan vest, cowboy hat, a Lanny McDonald-style mustache and crow’s feet around his eyes, Rorvig has the appearance of a rancher from Hollywood central casting.
What’s different about Rorvig, aside from his glasses, is he doesn’t have the strong, silent personality of the prototypical cowboy.
He’s exceptionally friendly and greeted a visitor to his ranch, about 80 kilometres west of Grand Forks, North Dakota, with a cheerful hello and quick smile.
After a few minutes of chit-chat about his farm and rain that fell on central North Dakota in late September, Rorvig was willing to share his thoughts on the U.S. beef industry and free trade with Canada and Mexico.
Without hesitation, Rorvig said he supports a fluid beef and cattle market between the three countries because North Dakotan and American ranchers benefit from the free movement of livestock and beef over borders.
“We’re a trading country. I think we need to trade,” said Rorvig, who runs the ranch with his daughter Amy. “I don’t think we want to throw up barriers between these countries.”
The Rorvigs raise Hereford and Red Angus cattle. It’s primarily a cow-calf operation but they also sell bred heifers and background cattle.
The farm, near McVille, has been in the family since the 1800s. It’s located on a scenic piece of North Dakota; the pastures with ravines and hills drop down to the Cheyenne River.
Beyond his ranch, Rorvig is the vice-president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association and talks to cattle producers across the state. Next year, he will become the group’s president.
The ND Stockmen’s Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association support free trade agreements.
But other cattle groups in the U.S. do not.
“The U.S. has a 25-year cumulative trade deficit with Canada and Mexico in the trade of cattle and beef of nearly $32 billion, and the deficit was more than $2 billion in each of the past three years. This mounting deficit seriously harms our domestic cattle markets,” said R-CALF United Stock Growers chief executive officer Bill Bullard, in September.
R-CALF, in a September news release, said it wants U.S. courts to decide trade disputes between the three nations and wants a new NAFTA to address currency under-valuations.
It also wants the U.S. government to restore mandatory country of origin labelling (COOL) for beef and pork. The World Trade Organization ruled that COOL contravened international trade rules and the U.S. Congress eliminated the labelling law late in 2015.
Rorvig is aware that a percentage of U.S. cattle producers like COOL but he opposes it.
“From a producer standpoint, I don’t like mandatory anything,” he said, adding American consumers can already buy beef with a U.S. flag on the package.
“I think the free market has lots of tools in place.”
As for the argument that cattle imports hurt U.S. ranchers and the American beef industry, Rorvig doesn’t accept that logic.
He sees it as signal from buyers.
“The market is telling me that we’ve got feedlots in the United States and we’ve got big corn crops and we’ve got livestock feeders that need cattle,” he said while standing in a pasture on his ranch, as cattle grazed the slopes.
“Ultimately, I think these things (imports) are good for the consumer as well.”
Rorvig supports free trade but he also backs President Donald Trump’s position that multi-nation trade deals aren’t the best for the U.S.
Trump has said that NAFTA is the worst trade deal in the history of the universe and early in his presidency he pulled out of the 12 country Trans-Pacific Partnership.
These sort of deals “water down” the benefits of free trade because no one gets what they really want, Rorvig said.
If Trump terminates the ongoing negotiations to modernize NAFTA and effectively kills the agreement, it’s not the end of trade between Canada and the U.S., he added.
“If that were to happen, the world is not going to quit turning,” he said. “But what is going to happen… I’d assume we’d get in a position of having some (bilateral) agreement between our countries…. We (the U.S.) are not going to walk away from trade, we better not.”
Rorvig is obviously an optimist because others think that abandoning NAFTA will be a messy, nasty affair in the U.S.
Corn growers, pork producers and other farm groups could launch legal action and the U.S. Congress might challenge Trump’s authority to pull out of NAFTA, said Patrick Leblond, trade expert with the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Ottawa.
U.S. beef producers and cattle associations may debate the merits of NAFTA and trade deals, but at the end of the day it’s about math and pragmatism, Rorvig said.