Trump's Trade War Has Hurt Midwestern Farmers. Now, They're Fighting Back.

A soybean farmer explains the challenges facing farmers if Trump's trade war continues.
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Dave Fendrich helps Bryant Hofer harvest a field of corn on October 2nd, 2013, near Salem, South Dakota.

Falling corn and soybean prices are cutting into American farmers' profits.

Even as the White House heralds progress, President Donald Trump's trade war continues to harm American industry. Last week, China promised to buy more soybeans, an olive branch for United States farmers. But until both countries ease off tariffs targeting $360 billion in goods, business and agriculture interests will continue to clamor for a resolution.

On Wednesday, the day after the State of the Union, a coalition of more than 100 farmers, retailers, and manufacturers gathered at the U.S. Capitol to meet with legislators as part of the "Tariffs Hurt the Heartland" campaign. The organizers, Farmers for Free Trade, are advocating for an end to the trade war and congressional oversight on tariffs. In a report released Wednesday, the group estimates that increasing tariffs on Chinese imports to 25 percent after the truce ends March 2nd, coupled with existing tariffs, could cost the country 2.2 million jobs.

Indiana farmer Brent Bible boarded a plane on Tuesday to join them. Bible runs Stillwater Farms, a small, 5,000-acre operation in Lafayette that produces corn and soybeans—one the U.S.'s biggest exports to China. Although Bible sells most of his crop for seed, he's already felt the effects of the trade war: Because of falling prices, he says his profit is a third of what it was before the tariffs began.

A Trump supporter who opposes Trump's trade policies, Bible says he felt moved to participate in the campaign when the price of soybeans and corn began to drop dramatically. "It certainly seems that we bear the brunt of the negative side of things," Bible says. "Our hope is that, conversely, if we're able to get a good deal, that the administration recognizes the sacrifice not only the agriculture industry, but others have made in going through this pain."

Pacific Standard spoke to Bible about the challenges awaiting farmers if lawmakers don't heed this message.

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How has the trade war impacted your own farm operation?

Since tariff talks heated up about nine months ago, we've seen the price of corn and soybeans fall off their highs at that time, dropping between 15 and 20 percent, to about 10 percent now. We've also seen a price increase on some of our inputs: Some of the chemicals we use are imported from Chinese manufacturers, and we also rely on steel and aluminum for storage facilities like grain bins. We've tried to hedge against what we thought would be a downturn in the market, but we certainly weren't able to capture all of that.

How severe are these losses, compared to previous downturns?

It's not totally atypical. We're used to having some type of a challenge every year: weather challenges, different market conditions. What is unique about it is that I see it as an unforced error: It's a challenge we probably didn't need to face in the manner that we faced it. It wasn't the best strategy choice for the agricultural community. I understand the need for trying to find a better way of balancing the trade relationship, particularly when it comes to China. But this strategy has put the agriculture community in an environment of uncertainty. This creates a demand vacuum in the short-term. What that does long-term is where it's more concerning: If [China's demand for soybeans] shifts to other parts of the world, South America in particular, it will take us a long time to get that demand back. It's not just that they'll buy the beans; they'll invest in land, infrastructure, and logistics.

What do you hope to accomplish with the Tariffs Hurt the Heartland campaign?

I hope to help the administration understand the urgency of getting a deal with China and getting back to a situation where our free markets are allowed to operate unencumbered by government intervention. That's my goal—just to make people understand that it's important to get back to that free trade status, and understand that the decisions and strategies that the administration has taken over the last nine months or so have had a direct impact on everyday people. My situation is just one of many.

Have you been involved in a campaign like this before, advocating and meeting with legislators?

This is a fairly new thing for me. I've tried to be participatory in our government, whether that's voting or speaking with our legislative folks to express a viewpoint. Especially with agriculture issues, with only about 2 percent of the U.S. population involved in agriculture production or related industry, it's not something that people have much exposure to anymore.

Why get involved this time?

This is an issue that's affected us personally. We've seen the impact firsthand. Just the timing of the issue, we're at that point where, if this were to continue into the next production year, we'd see some fairly long-lasting change to our demand structure and the way farmers plan their operations.

If that happens, will farmers such as yourself be able to recover?

I think it'd be alarmist to say that's been the case already, but I think more farming operations are in a less stable financial position today than they were a year ago, and that's at least in part due to the administration's trade strategy. To see it to continue would be to see the deterioration continue.

Aside from the tariffs on Chinese imports, do you expect consumers to feel this impact?

With food prices, it generally doesn't have an effect. That might be a reason why people haven't been particularly impassioned about the issue. If the list price of an automobile went up because of the added price of aluminum, a consumer's not going to recognize that price increase. It's kind of like being put in warm water and boiled slowly. Where it has the potential for some longer-term effect is if you see the agriculture industry turn down, you see the demand for jobs decrease as well. That has an impact in rural communities to a much larger degree.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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