WALLA WALLA - A new free trade agreement between the United States and South Korea could open doors for more Walla Walla wine, wheat, beef and other agricultural exports, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Saturday during a round-table discussion at Walla Walla Community College.
Surrounded by about a dozen wheat, wine and beef representatives, plus government, education and economic development officials at the Institute for Enology & Viticulture, Cantwell said the new agreement will lift tariffs on exports vital to the local economy and offer a "big opportunity" for access to the South Korean marketplace.
The next question: "How can we help you?" Cantwell asked the group.
Excited by the prospects, participants said everything from marketing Washington products, promoting the Walla Walla name and bolstering transportation and infrastructure needs from road to rail will foster the process.
Though South Korea is Washington's fourth largest export market - it took in $1.4 billion in agricultural exports from the state last year - most of the boutique wineries in Walla Walla are too small on their own to supply the volume needed to ship overseas.
"We have to find a way to get small wineries together to fill a container," said Josh McCarthy, a student in the Enology & Viticulture program who left Washington, D.C., and a career at Lockheed Martin on a path to a new profession.
Dawn Kammer, co-owner of DaMa Wines and a board member for the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, said education, trade shows and a push by the state could help Walla Walla wineries blaze a trail in South Korea.
"They don't even know that California makes wine," she said.
The Cantwell-supported U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement was announced last week by the U.S. Trade Representative. Starting March 15, South Korea will eliminate tariffs on various agricultural commodities, including a 15 percent tariff on wine.
The deal also calls for the elimination of a 40 percent tariff on beef - the state's fifth largest commodity - over the next 15 years. Under the new trade deal, Washington's beef exports are expected to increase by $7 million per year to South Korea.
Tyler Cox, a Walla Walla cattle rancher, said the tariff change represents "a huge amount," $140 per head.
"That's going to be a huge step forward for the beef industry," added Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association.
In addition to the potential export growth, business and community leaders at the table also took the time to ask the senator about the possibility of a transportation bill, possible policies that could help stabilize the manufacturing of biofuels, continued federal support for veterans care in Walla Walla and financial support for new statewide tourism efforts.
Cantwell arrived in Walla Walla for the 1 p.m. discussion fresh off a tour of the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory at Washington State University's campus in Richland. The focus there was on a recently approved Federal Aviation Administration bill that paves the way for the Tri-Cities to become a biofuels leader with a new jet fuel research center.
Her focus here was on explaining the benefits of the trade agreement, the first of three expected to take effect. Others are with Panama and Colombia.
The American Farm Bureau estimates an increase of $52.8 million in direct exports to the state and a potential to add hundreds of jobs through the three agreements, according to information from Cantwell's office.
The agreement with Colombia would eliminate a 10 percent tariff on wheat, potentially increasing sales by $5.9 million per year. A 15 percent tariff on apples would be eliminated, too. Last year's crop to Colombia was valued at $4.5 million.