Trade War Sowing Seeds of Doubt With US Farmers

The typical routines of life on a family farm carry a heavier burden these days for Pam Johnson.

“First thing I do is make a pot of coffee,” she told VOA in an interview in one of the cavernous sheds that contain her green and yellow John Deere farming equipment. Once she has that coffee, she “(goes) to the computer and look at what grain prices have done overnight and usually do a gut clutch, because they’ve been going down. They’re at five-month lows.”

Driven there in part by retaliatory tariffs imposed by one of the largest importers of U.S. soybeans – China.

Johnson and her husband are proud sixth-generation farmers but say they are dealing with some of the harshest economic conditions of their lives.

“We’re all tightening our belts,” she says.

The ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China, initially sparked by U.S. tariffs on imported aluminum and steel, is now impacting most farms across the country. 

As U.S. farmers head to the fields to plant this spring, they are facing a potential sixth consecutive year of declining farm income, because of international tariffs that have depressed prices for their grain products as well as increased costs for the materials to produce and store them.

​Short-term concern over U.S. trade policy is turning into long-term fear for farmers, who face uncertainty over congressional support for a new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, and the impact of China’s retaliatory tariffs on U.S. grain exports. 

“We hear it may be out to 2025 before we see some of those markets come back to us, if they ever do,” Johnson said. “I think that’s the thing that hurts the most is, what is the damage being done that is irreparable?”

It is damage her son Ben Johnson, the seventh generation in the family business, may eventually have to deal with.

“All farms are going to suffer because of this,” he explained. “There’s a difference between ‘making it’ and flourishing.”

The Johnsons feel there is a growing disconnect between farmers and the rest of the American workforce, fueled by politicians increasingly hostile to trade policies the agricultural industry depends on.

“We need as much trade as we can and to be openly trading with as many places as we can,” Ben Johnson says. “It’s no different to any business – you want as many customers as you can. And to intentionally discourage them is frustrating.”

Neither Johnson nor his mother voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, largely because if his trade positions, they say. 

​Nothing that has happened since the election has eased Pam Johnson’s concerns.

“Saying that ‘I’m a tariff man’ and that ‘trade wars are easy to win’ concerns me,” she says, quoting comments the president has made. “There are still a lot of farmers who still support President Trump. I think there are more seeds of doubt being planted as we look forward into 2019 and no resolution and the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be getting dimmer about getting these things done.”

Politics aside, Pam Johnson admits success for her family business is closely tied to U.S. trade policy.

“I don’t want to see President Trump fail in these trade endeavors. We all need him to make this work so that all of us win,” she says.

A win her son Ben says can’t come soon enough.

“We’ve already missed the peak soybean export season, so in a way, it’s already too late… I guess it’s never too late, but before now would have been great,” he says.

While negotiations continue, the Trump administration says it is actively working on a new financial assistance program to help farmers weather the continuing trade storm.

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