Asia trade deal puts honey exporter in sweet spot for Obama speech

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chief executive of a successful American exporter will have a prime spot on Tuesday night to watch President Barack Obama make the case in his final State of the Union address for a sweeping Asian trade deal he hopes will be part of his legacy.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the climate agreement at the White House in Washington, December 12, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Ronna Rice, CEO of a Greeley, Colorado honey company that ships its sweet product as far as Japan, South Korea and China, will be one of 23 guests in the First Lady’s box to hear the speech in person.

Inviting Americans whose stories bring to life the priorities of the White House has long been part of the annual State of the Union ritual.

As Obama pushes in his last year in office to sweet-talk trade-wary Democratic lawmakers to support the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, Rice’s Lucky Clover Honey is just the kind of company the White House wants Congress to keep in mind.

When the White House called to invite her to the State of Union address, Rice, 71, thought one of her family members was playing a practical joke.

But the honey, sold in jars emblazoned with a black-and-white photo of her husband’s grandfather, is one of thousands of American exports that could get a lift from the TPP.

“I was thinking the other day about Grandpa Rice,” she said in an interview, describing the quiet and deeply religious man who founded Rice’s Lucky Clover Honey in 1924, selling honey door-to-door from a wagon.

“He would have never believed where his company has come.”

Obama wants lawmakers to quickly pass the TPP, but Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has said he is inclined to wait until after the November 2016 presidential election.

Democratic lawmakers in both the House of Representatives and Senate are concerned the deal could push jobs out of the United States.

Environmental groups and unions oppose it, as do the Democratic candidates running in the presidential race.

Some Republicans suspect the deal is another example of “crony capitalism” that rewards big business allies of the Washington establishment.

So Obama has sought to brand the TPP as something that will help small American companies like Rice’s Lucky Clover Honey grow bigger.

The TPP will open up export markets for U.S. honey, particularly in Japan, where a tariff of more than 25 percent currently limits growth. China, not part of the TPP deal, currently dominates the Japanese import market.

The deal requires Japan to eliminate the tariff on U.S. honey after eight years, after which time U.S. exporters would have an advantage over Chinese competitors.

Today, Rice’s Lucky Clover Honey ships around the United States and has export sales of about $500,000 to Asia, supporting 15 jobs. The family-run company hopes to further expand sales overseas, and create more jobs.

“It’s kind of amazing to be honest with you, to go from a very small company ... to being able to do this,” Rice said.

Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli