I live in rural Pennsylvania. In the summer, as I drive along its two-lane roads, I see field after field of soybeans and, beyond them, tall green rows of corn reaching almost to the sky.
Pennsylvania farmers grow more than 25 million bushels of soybeans on 590,000 acres. We’re not one of the nation’s top 10 soybean producers, but 25 million bushels is a lot.
President Trump’s a city boy. He can’t see our more than 59,000 farms from Trump Tower or the White House. In his life, whenever he’s seen a green field all he’s ever thought about is tall hotels, paved parking lots and dollar signs.
But when he started his trade war with China last week, the Chinese slapped back with anti-U.S. tariffs of their own. Trump raised the ante, and last Wednesday the Chinese threw down another $50 billion worth of tariffs on more than 100 U.S. products, including soybeans.
American farmers export to China one out of every three soybeans they grow, so what China’s doing will hurt us where we’ll feel it most — in our wallets. And it’s no accident that the Chinese put soybeans on their new tariff list: because eight of those top 10 states that grow and export soybeans voted for Trump in 2016, as Pennsylvania did.
Theodore Alter, an economist in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, points out that “The prices farmers receive for four major commodities — milk, corn for grain, soybeans and wheat — have declined in the last five years, cutting profit margins and farm incomes.”
A 25 percent tariff on the soybeans they send to China will make their situation even worse. President Trump is telling them they will feel only short-term pain.
“We were hoping it was just brinkmanship and cooler heads would prevail,” says Brian Duncan, a hog farmer and soybean grower, “but instead, some of our worst fears seem to be coming true. “This is significant, real and serious for rural America. We’re talking about livelihoods and our existence.”
On the Chinese end, adding 25 percent to the price of soybeans coming into that country means buyers there will stop short and look for other soybean suppliers, especially in South America where it’s harvest time right now.
Pennsylvania farmers are facing its worst agricultural economy in 16 years. On farm after farm, especially on struggling small farms, they have bills to pay and debts to settle. They can’t afford to lose any market, much less one as important as China’s.
There’s still time to reverse this damage, and Trump can still help by withdrawing the tariffs that caused this retaliation. China has vowed that its 25 percent tariff will only go into effect based on the course the Trump administration takes.
In a public appeal this week, the American Soybean Association said, “We call on President Trump to engage the Chinese in a constructive manner — not a punitive one — and achieve a positive result for soybean farmers.”
For our farmers, that’s the thing to do.
(Bomboy is a local author, former teacher and past Ford Foundation Fellow at the University of Chicago and in Washington, D.C.)