China imported the most US soy since March of 2018 in November.
The 2.6 million tons purchased last month were part of an ongoing effort on the part of Xi Jinping to foster goodwill with the White House amid tedious trade negotiations with his mercurial counterpart in the Oval Office.
For months, Chinese buyers have operated under a waivers regime which paved the way for purchases of US farm products despite retaliatory tariffs put in place to counter Donald Trump’s punishing levies on imports from the world’s second-largest economy.
The Trump administration insists the trade war is not only a good idea, but an inevitable clash of civilizations. It is, Trump claims, a “somebody hadda’ do it”, situation. Steve Bannon agrees. So does Peter Navarro.
Asked by reporters in August if perpetuating Sino-US tensions is worth chancing a downturn in the domestic economy, Trump first blamed the media and then exclaimed “Let’s have a recession!” After that, he jokingly pointed skyward and called himself “the chosen one”.
The US president purports to care about the people the trade war has hurt, and no group has suffered more than America’s farmers. Initially, Trump’s go-to line was that farmers are “tough”. In fact, he went so far as to speak for the farmers at a rally in Tampa in July of 2018, when the trade war was just heating up in earnest. “It’s ok, we can take it”, he presumptuously told the crowd.
To be sure, not all farmers were saying “it’s ok, we can take it”. Nonprofit group Farmers for Free Trade ran an all-out media blitz aimed at raising awareness about just how bad Trump’s policies really are for US agriculture.
That’s not to say he didn’t retain the support of many a farmer willing to suspend disbelief and persist in the fantastical narrative that a billionaire real estate developer with a long history of narcissism suddenly became the champion of US agriculture. He does, in fact, retain quite a bit of support. Many farmers will surely vote for him again, just as they were willing to shell out $45 for the special edition, green “Make Our Farmers Great Again” hats the president peddled on his website. (The first batch quickly sold out in August of 2018.)
But if nothing else, the reality of the trade war has hit home for almost everyone in the farm community and this week, The Washington Post published a heartbreaking account of Anne Lee who, along with her husband Andy, in 2013 took over a 305-acre dairy farm that belonged to Andy’s parents.
Long story short, they are now $200,000 in debt, and Anne cannot afford to make lasagna for her children, who have to settle for tater tots and diced tomatoes to go along with the eggs, milk and meat the farm provides. (Tomatoes are $1 a can and potato tots for roast pork are just $1.69 a bag. Cheese for lasagna, on the other hand, is a pricey $2.49 per half pound.)
“I wish I could make lasagna, but it’s expensive”, Anne told WaPo. “We’re supposed to be feeding the world, and we can’t even put food on our own table”.
It’s not all Trump’s fault. In that respect, the plight of Anne and her family is a carbon copy of many Americans’ predicament under this president, not just farmers. Trump’s policies have simply made bad situations worse or accelerated the decline of industries he promised to resurrect. Recent job cuts at US steel are another example, although there is some truth to Wilbur Ross’s contention that the company is taking necessary steps to close uneconomic production that wouldn’t be competitive even under better circumstances.
“The decline in the dairy industry — driven by global overproduction and a drop in American liquid milk consumption — hit rural New York hard, with the state losing more than 1,100 dairy farms since 2012, according to federal statistics”, WaPo explains, on the way to noting that “last year’s retaliatory tariffs from Mexico and China on dairy products after Trump-imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum [dealt] a $125 million blow to New York’s dairy farmers, according to one state estimate”.
According to the Farm Bureau, Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies are still on the rise. Over the past 12 months, for example, bankruptcies totaled 580 filings, a 24% jump from the previous 12 months.
Again, it’s not all Trump’s fault, but he has surely exacerbated it. “Farmers and ranchers struggle with a prolonged downturn in the farm economy that’s been made worse by unfair retaliatory tariffs on US agriculture as well as two consecutive years of adverse planting, growing and harvesting conditions”, the Bureau recently wrote.
As sympathetic as anyone would be to America’s farmers, characterizing China’s retaliatory tariffs as “unfair” is to fundamentally misunderstand the word “retaliatory”. You can, perhaps, say “disproportionate”, or even “cruel”, but suggesting that a sovereign nation which has, for years, been accustomed to one set of rules (even if those rules disadvantaged that country’s trading partners), is being “unfair” to retaliate against an ad hoc, left-field, draconian crackdown orchestrated by a man whose understanding of trade, commerce and economics is rudimentary at best, is to be wholly disingenuous.
“Farm debt in 2019 is projected to be a record-high $416 billion, with $257 billion in real estate debt and $159 billion in non-real estate debt”, the Farm Bureau said in October, adding that “the repayment terms on this debt… reached all-time highs for a variety of categories”.
(Farm Bureau, Kansas City Fed)
What of the farm bailouts that Trump has variously touted on Twitter?
WaPo cites the nonprofit Environmental Working Group in noting that 60% of the money that flowed to New York state went to the top 10% of farmers. We’ve documented EWG’s studies on numerous occasions in these pages.
The latest analysis by the group began with a scathing assessment of Trump’s Twitter boast about Thanksgiving payouts to farmers. “Trump’s Thanksgiving promise to help small farmers will be a big turkey without making major changes and closing loopholes in the bailout program”, EWG chided.
The most recent data showed the top 10% of aid recipients (which EWG notes are “the largest, most profitable industrial-scale farms in the country”) got half of the $6 billion in payments made from August to the end of October. Three of those recipients got more than $1 million each, and 45 of them more than $500,000.
“The richest of the rich, the top 1% of recipients, received 13% of payments [for] an average payment of more than $177,000, but the bottom 80% of recipients, including small farmers, got an average payment of $5,136″, EWG lamented.
The Lees got even less than that. In 2019, they received a total of $4,100. By their own account, their milk check is down that much per month.
According to the Post‘s reporting, Anne has assumed multiple part-time jobs from substitute school aide to liquor store assistant manager. She’s even served as a movie extra at Syracuse’s film hub. Together, those gigs earned her $5,330 in 2019.
As you can probably imagine, that’s a depressing prospect for her husband of 18 years. “My wife’s got to do that? It means I’m not doing a good enough job”, he said.
Anne recently applied for SNAP and, without telling Andy, went to the local food bank where she received items that now count as luxury goods in the Lee household – items like grapes. Here’s WaPo:
Anne was able to cross so many items off her master grocery list that once she got to Aldi she only spent $73.12, and then another $39.38 at the scratch-and-dent store that sells day-old bread and dented cans of food. She was $62.50 under her $175 budget. Now, she might be able to keep the lights on in the house and put a little toward the $459 electric bill.
The Lees, like many in the area, voted for Trump in 2016.
The administration has insisted that China will ramp up purchases of US farm products to between $40 billion and $50 billion annually. Beijing is trying to make the math work, pondering a variety of options including ethanol purchases and diverting some shipments directly to mainland ports from Hong Kong, a kind of left-to-right pocket accounting.
But even if China manages to hit Trump’s mark for a few years, maintaining those levels seems far-fetched, even at the low end. And the idea that it’s going to immediately reverse the fortunes of families like the Lees is obviously (and sadly) absurd.
Despite their increasingly dire finances, the Lees struck a generous tone when describing the president and his policies.
“We’ve had unfair trade for years and years. Somebody had to fix it, and he’s trying to fix it,” Anne told WaPo.
“I know a lot of people don’t like it but, you know, this was going to have to happen in order to make US products become more competitive”, Andy remarked. “It’s going to hurt for a while”.
There remains scant evidence that Trump’s trade policies are “working”, on any definition of the word.