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Vilsack in St. Louis to push Korean trade pact

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Ratification of a U.S. trade agreement with South Korea would add tens of thousands of jobs, many of them in predominantly agricultural states like Missouri, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday. But, he said, Congress needs to move quickly.

Vilsack spoke outside an ADM grain terminal on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Louis. He said he was hopeful Congress will ratify the South Korea trade agreement by July 1.

Vilsack encouraged Congress to act quickly because other nations who compete with the U.S. are also negotiating with South Korea. For example, Australia, a competitor in beef exports, is close to a deal. Still, some in Congress prefer to wait and pass trade agreements with Colombia and Panama in addition to South Korea.

“We need to get into that market,” Vilsack said of South Korea. “We need to expand that market, and we need to take advantage of those reduced tariffs.”

The U.S. pact with South Korea was held up for months over U.S. demands that South Korea reduce its surplus in auto trade. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said negotiators have resolved those differences.

“This is an important and tough free trade agreement we need to support,” she said at the St. Louis event.

Vilsack said farmers within a 500-mile radius of St. Louis are producing more than three quarters of the nation’s corn and soybean crops. The Midwest also produces a large percentage of pork.

Pork producer Jim Fisher, who runs Fisher Farms near Middletown, Mo., with his brother and father, said the agreement would lift U.S. hog prices by $10 per head and create 9,000 jobs in the pork industry.

“To remain competitive, we have to get this U.S.-Korea trade agreement passed,” he said.

President Barack Obama’s National Export Initiative has a goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2014. The administration says doing so would create several million new jobs in the U.S.

“This is an enormous opportunity for agriculture,” Vilsack said.

Missouri Department of Agriculture director Jon Hagler said the state exports half of its soybeans and 80 percent of its cotton.

“When the farm does well, America does well,” Hagler said.

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