Farmers struggle with tariffs and floods

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: tariffs and farmers.

Last year, President Trump placed tariffs on hundreds of Chinese imports. He wants to pressure China to give up its unfair trade practices. China retaliated and placed tariffs on American exports. A third of the retaliatory tariffs target agricultural products, like soybeans and pork. Which had the effect of driving down farm profits.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: To ease some of the pain on American farmers, President Trump authorized a $12 billion aid package for them. With the trade standoff continuing, the government okayed another round of aid just a few weeks ago.

But tariffs aren’t the only thing plaguing farmers. Amid a new growing season, many in the heartland are also facing flooding and an extremely late planting season.

WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg spoke with farmers in Eastern South Dakota about these challenges.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Jerry Runia is a first generation farmer near the small town of Estalline, South Dakota. He grows corn and soybeans on 1,500 acres. Since he got his start here 40 years ago, he’s seen his share of struggles. Runia says this year is especially painful.

RUNIA: We’re gonna survive, but yeah, we’re not gonna thrive.

Before the U.S. trade war with China started last year, farm incomes had already been dropping. But the trade war cost farmers a large portion of one of their biggest export markets. That drove down ag commodity prices. 2019’s first quarter saw the lowest farm incomes in three years.

Now, spring flooding has kept many farmers like Runia from planting. That means crops are missing out on key growing time.

RUNIA: We’re typically done with corn by the 10th of May, typically done with beans by the 15th of May. So we’re almost 30 days behind. When you plant late, you get less yields. You took the top end off.

Despite the pain in his pocketbook, Runia says something had to be done about China’s unfair trade practices.

RUNIA: If you wanted to raise hogs in China, you’d come over there with your plan. You had to give them your plan. You had to show them the technology that you’re going to be given you’re using. And then they just took it and it, and it doesn’t matter what it is, they take that technology.

Scott VanderWal farms corn and soybeans near Volga, South Dakota. He’s also the president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau and vice president of the American Farm Bureau. He says many farmers might not like the tariffs, but they still support President Trump.         

VANDERWAL: We understand what the president’s trying to do. And it’s something that no other president has taken on before him and it needs to be done. And farmers for the most part have supported that and said, let’s just keep quiet a little bit and let the president do his thing.

Brandon Wipf farms near Doland, South Dakota. Today, he’s out raking alfalfa into neat windrows. Wipf is also the spokesperson for the American Soybean Association. He says while something had to be done about China, the U.S. should have joined forces with other nations instead of taking on China alone.

WIPF: It left the farmers, very exposed, it left American farmers very exposed to retaliation.

Now, Wipf says the U.S. lost more leverage in the tug of war with China. This year, African swine flu wiped out millions of hogs in China. That means China doesn’t need nearly as many soybeans for feed and there’s less pressure to remove the soybean tariff.  

And Wipf worries that even if the trade war does end soon, America’s reputation as a reliable food source has been damaged.

WIPF: Our buyers will certainly look at what has happened between the US and China and they’ll realize they are taking somewhat of a, a political risk if they decide to do business here.

To ease farmers’ ongoing struggles, President Trump announced another tariff aid package last month—this time worth $16 billion. The USDA hasn’t said when the payments will start. The agency says the payments will be based on the number of acres each farmer plants.

Dermot Hayes is an economist at Iowa State University. He says that could be problematic for farmers with flooded land that won’t get planted.

HAYES: To my casual observation, we’re gonna fail to plant several million acres.

And Hayes says while another aid package is a nice gesture, farmers want trade—not handouts.

HAYES: These are independent business people who have succeeded based on their entrepreneurial, the managerial skills. So it’s kind of, it’s both a help and an insult of the same time.

Still, Jerry Runia says he knows farmers who stayed afloat last year because of the aid package. This year’s payout will also be very welcome. And he has strong hopes this pain will be temporary and worth long term gains for the country.

RUNIA: I just think it’s a matter of what is right and what is wrong, and I want to do what is right. I happen to be in part of the industry that is getting the brunt of this right now.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Estelline, South Dakota.

(Bonnie Vculek/The Enid News & Eagle via AP) Scott Simunek harvests wheat east of the Bison Co-op, in Bison, Okla., Tuesday, June 11, 2019. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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