USDA Chief Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor, has been laying the groundwork for positive trade talks with his Mexican counterpart, José Calzada Rovirosa. Photo: SAGARDA

With upcoming NAFTA talks seemingly poised to focus more on factories than farming, negotiators shouldn’t hurt one to fix the other, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said while making a reciprocal visit with his counterpart in Mexico.

Producers well know that agriculture can be used as a “retaliatory measure” in broader trade talks, the former Georgia governor said as he started a second day of meetings in Merida, Mexico, with José Calzada Rovirosa.

With U.S. President Donald Trump spurring the negotiations to get a better deal (justifiably, in Mr. Perdue’s view) for manufacturers, the secretary said he hoped the talks wouldn’t put two key sectors at odds with each other when they begin Aug. 16.

Besides, Mr. Perdue said, food also creates a lot of factories.

“I don’t think we have done a very good job in the U.S. of telling how many manufacturing jobs are the result of agricultural production,” Mr. Perdue said on a call with reporters Friday morning after a day of “Mexican hospitality” and bilateral meetings.

His trip to the scenic Yucatan Peninsula included stops at a pork processing plant, a historic hacienda, the Mayan ruins of Uxmal and the Port of Progresso, where he witnessed American corn being offloaded from a ship.

On their first day, the secretaries wore matching white shirts as they continued building what they say is amicable personal relationship that will help them navigate potentially tense talks.

“We’ve developed a trust and respect and a mutual candor with one another,” Mr. Perdue said.

That could be important, given how agriculture tends to be used as leverage in trade talks. Mexico is already said to be shopping around for new sources of grain amid the potential for NAFTA turbulence.

Mr. Perdue said he understood why Mexico would telegraph such a move, but he shrugged off the idea that American producers would be replaced.

“We have such productive and logistical advantages from the U.S. to Mexico,” he said, adding, “We have a corner store for their supply, and we will continue to take advantage of that.”

Talking with reporters, Mr. Perdue acknowledged that NAFTA hasn’t been great for some American fruit and vegetable producers, a sentiment shared by some congressional leaders, including Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., who in a hearing this week raised the issue of protecting producers from what some have called unfair trade practices with regard to tomatoes and other crops.

Mr. Perdue’s visit to Mexico came a month after he welcomed Mr. Calzada and Canadian Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay in Savannah, Ga., where they talked dairy and sugar trade at an apt location: Leopold’s Ice Cream.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...