What has been most astonishing about the protracted agricultural trade feud with China has been the quiet. With the farm sector and the grain export business under serious pressure and long-term damage to both being inflicted, attention devoted to the issue seems far from commensurate with what is at stake.
The silence begins at the top. At a recent presentation before the American Bakers Association and the American Frozen Food Institute, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue discussed the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the issue of food waste and an administration proposal to create a single, consolidated food safety organization. Mr. Perdue uttered not a single word about agricultural trade with China. Meanwhile, leading trade officials in the Trump administration have vigorously defended their assault against China and have been loath to concede harm to the agricultural sector beyond what will be offset by $12 billion in farm aid delivered through initiatives, principally its Market Facilitation Program.
Pounded by large production prospects and a weaker demand outlook, soybean and corn prices have slumped toward lows as the 2018 row crop harvest gets under way. Through Sept. 6, export sales to China for the new crop year totaled 1,391,000 metric tons, down 79 per cent from new crop sales the year before. Actual shipments year-to-date were down 90 per cent. U.S. spring wheat sales to China for 2018-19 were zero as of Sept. 6, and exporters have expressed concern Canada will absorb this business (between 500,000 and 1 million metric tons the last two years).
Expectations that these forces would translate into weaker farm income this year have been affirmed in the latest forecast by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pegging farm income at $65.7 billion, down 13 per cent from $75.5 billion in 2017 and down 47 per cent from the recent peak of $123.8 billion in 2013. The Federal Reserve Bank in its Ag Credit Survey said farm credit measures have begun to show signs of deterioration.
For grain exporters, the near-term effects have been both reduced throughput volume and, significantly worse, a sharp decline in elevations at Gulf export facilities — estimated to have slumped to roughly 5c a bu from 15c.
The agricultural sector is the poster child for lasting deep damage done when the United States’ reputation as a reliable trading partner is tarnished.
More important are the potential longer-term ramifications for agricultural production and trade, in the United States and globally. The longer it takes to resolve the trade fight, the more likely it is China will relegate the United States to a residual supplier at best, a change that could be felt for decades. The mix of crops planted across tens of millions of acres altered significantly, beginning in 2019. The agricultural sector is the poster child for lasting deep damage done when the United States’ reputation as a reliable trading partner is tarnished.
Agricultural groups and certain grain companies and the business community broadly have issued strongly worded criticisms of the Trump administration’s trade policy. Still, why does the response continue to seem muted?
As has been widely noted, agricultural producers in 2016 accounted for an important part of the president’s electoral base. The economy is doing well overall with median household income up and unemployment down. Growers asked by the media about their support for the president in the face of the farm economy woes overwhelmingly expressed hope Mr. Trump’s trade approach will work.
Their patience may be wearing thin. In Washington recently, growers representing the National Farmers Union forcefully voiced their grievances to Greg Doud, the chief agricultural negotiator for the U.S. Trade Representative. If these sentiments spread through the farming community, congressional pressure on the Trump administration will quickly build. There was a time in the 1970s when growers showed their discontent by rolling their tractors onto the streets of the nation’s capital. If ever there was a time when growers’ voices were needed to loudly and clearly call for a change in trade policy, the time is upon us.