The Sino-U.S. trade war, which has stymied U.S. farm exports, “is going to be a long one, and we keep delivering the message, ‘We’re with you, Mr. President,'” said the leader of the largest U.S. farm group on Sunday, adding a caveat. “The runaway of our patience is going to be determined by the financial situation of our farms. We went into the battle very weak.”
In opening the centennial meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation, president Zippy Duvall said farmers hope for a speedy resolution of the trade war, but said, “we’re going to hang with him,” meaning President Trump, who is scheduled to speak Tuesday to the convention in New Orleans. Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts, speaking after Duvall, suggested a change in course: “Let’s trade with China” while negotiating over U.S. complaints of unfair trading practices and intellectual piracy by China.
Farm and rural voters were key to Trump’s election in 2016 and he remains highly popular in rural America. He scored a sky-high 76 percent approval rating in late December, just before the partial government shutdown, in a straw poll of producers by Farm Journal. By contrast, Trump has an approval rating of 41 percent in a tracking poll maintained by the analytical site FiveThirtyEight.
Duvall said 2018 was “a terrible year for all of us.” There were hurricanes and wildfires, tit-for-tat tariffs with U.S. trading partners, a farm labor shortage and low commodity prices. Farm income has been in a rut since 2015, running at roughly half of the record set in 2013. The year was a success as far as federal policy, he said, with tax cuts for farmers and ranchers, regulatory relief, passage of a five-year farm law that modestly strengthens the safety net and administration promises to begin year round sales this summer of E15, a 15-percent blend of corn ethanol into gasoline.
Before the trade war began last summer, China was the No. 1 market for U.S. farm exports. It is forecast to tumble to No. 5 this year, with purchases down 60 percent. Soybean sales to Beijing, which ran at $14 billion a year, have plunged because of retaliatory tariffs. To mitigate the impact of the trade war on U.S. agriculture, the White House earmarked up to $9.6 billion in cash payments to almond, corn, cotton, dairy, hog, sorghum, soybean, fresh sweet cherries and wheat producers.
The package in “no way makes us whole,” said Duvall, but “it surely is appreciated.” He led the crowd in a round of applause to show thanks to the administration. Some $3 billion in Trump tariff payments have flowed to producers during the partial government shutdown, raising the total payout to $5.2 billion, a USDA spokesman told the Washington Post. The payments go to producers who completed paperwork for assistance before the shutdown began on Dec. 22.
While the administration wrestles with China, U.S. farm trade could benefit from negotiations with Japan and Britain for market-opening pacts, said Duvall. He urged AFBF members to vocally support ratification of the successor agreement to NAFTA, which maintains duty-free access for most farm goods to Canada and Mexico and offers some new opportunities for wheat and dairy sales.
“We need some new trade agreements,” agreed Roberts. The White House pledged an era of bilateral trade agreements to replace the TPP and other multilateral pacts that Trump views as biased against the United States, but they are slow in coming.
The American Soybean Association says its top priority for 2019 is “pushing the Administration to resolve its tariff war with China, including rescinding its Section 301 duties if China agrees to lift its 25 percent tariff on U.S. soybeans.” The group for soybean farmers calls for free trade agreements with the EU, Japan, Britain, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines to boost soy and livestock exports.
The largest group representing hog farmers, the National Pork Producers Council, says the White House should remove steel and aluminum tariffs from Mexico in order to restore pork sales to the southern neighbor. It also supports a resolution of the trade war with China so exports can resume, along with trade negotiations with the EU, Britain and Japan. In addition, it will work for agricultural visa reform. “This reform could take the shape in the form of new programs or incremental changes to existing programs such as H-2A (more likely),” it said.
“We’re going to work on farm labor,” said Duvall in listing AFBF goals for 2019. “We’re going to try to seize the moment.” The AFBF is a longtime supporter of legal status for undocumented farm workers and reform of the H-2A guest-worker program. Other AFBF goals are regulatory reform, expansion of export trade, more money for agricultural research and action on rural broadband. “It is a necessity,” said Duvall.
During his speech, Roberts said the partial government shutdown must end. “Honest to God, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said the Kansas Republican.
To watch a video of Duvall’s speech, click here.