American farmers struggle to stay afloat amid floods and trade war

New York (AFP) –


Caught in the middle of a trade war and hammered by massive spring floods, American farmers are facing a tough year and worry about their future, yet some still trust President Donald Trump.

The situation worsened last week when Beijing halted purchases of US farm crops in retaliation for Trump's vow to put tariffs on Chinese imports.

It's "a body blow to thousands of farmers and ranchers who are already struggling to get by," said Zippy Duvall, president of the Farm Bureau, the country's largest agricultural association.

"Now we stand to lose all of what was a $9.1 billion market in 2018," he said in a statement, noting that exports had already dropped dramatically from the $19.5 billion sent to China in 2017.

Trump's Democratic rivals in next year's presidential election have seized on the trade war, with former vice president Joe Biden saying the dispute "is going to cause a lot (of people) to go bankrupt" during a stop last week in Iowa, an agricultural state that backed the president in the 2016 election.

Trump shrugged off the criticism on Tuesday, saying the blame for the hardship lies with the Chinese.

"They've said they're going to buy farm products. So far, they've disappointed me with the truth," he said.

- The strain is showing -

There is no question farmers are under pressure.

According to the Farm Bureau, farm bankruptcies have jumped 13 percent over the 12 months ending on June 30, after holding about steady in 2018 compared to 2017.

But the trade war -- which led to Chinese tariffs on key exports like soybeans -- is only one element.

The bureau cited "several years of low farm income, a low return on farm assets, mounting debt, more natural disasters and the second year of retaliatory tariffs on many US agricultural products" as causes of farmers' distress.

Heavy rains in the spring and early summer flooded a large part of the farmland, delaying planting by several weeks or preventing it altogether.

Not only will yields be affected, but farmers are worried that the late-blooming crops will be hit with early frosts in the fall.

"It's not unusual to have losses due to the weather, but not on this scale," says Jamie Beyer, a farmer in Wheaton, Minnesota who grows soybean, corn, sugar beet and alfalfa.

That "compounds the stress we are having on trade issues," she said.

The US Department of Agriculture in a Monday report lowered its soybean production estimate, but predicted a rise in corn output despite lower acreage planted.

- 'Caught in the middle' -

John Reifsteck, who grows corn and soybeans in Illinois, said that experiences differ among farmers and that "luck or good decisions, really, play a big part."

"There's no question about the fact that trade issues between the US and China but also Mexico and Canada are affecting market prices, especially for our soybeans, and we are caught in the middle," he said.

Plentiful harvests in prior years have also dropped prices, as has an African swine fever outbreak in China that decimated the hog population and lowered demand for soybeans.

Blake Hurst has managed to sow all of his land in northwestern Missouri, a region where other farms are still underwater.

But between weather conditions and trade tensions, he does not expect to make money this year.

"We know from long experience that weather will improve," he said, but warned, "We are 18 months into this trade war and we don't know if it might ever improve."

- Supportive farmers -

The challenges haven't stopped farmers from supporting Trump, Hurst said.

"Most of them keep supporting Trump because he stands up to China," he said.

Farmers also like the president because he's fought to cut regulations and presided over a healthy economy, Reifsteck said.

"Farmers live in a community, and the economy is doing pretty well," he said.

Flood insurance and $28 billion in aid from the Trump administration to farmers affected by the trade war should help limit the damage in the short term.

James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, whose district encompasses swaths of farm country, called the trade war a "downside surprise" after four or five good years.

But he's heard from farmers that government support "while welcome... is probably not sufficient to really cover everything that's occurred because of the trade dispute," he told AFP.

Bruce Rohwer, a farmer in northwestern Iowa and president of the state's Corn Growers Association, said the payments are a "a token response" to the losses caused by tariffs.

"Longer term, the issue you have to deal with is to rebuild the trust of trading partners."