Tommy is a family friend and has a familiar story for folks in rural Iowa. His family’s farm has been passed down from generation to generation for over one hundred years. They spent springs waiting for that right moment to plant and falls doing the hard work of the harvest. Growing and tending to their crops became more than just a livelihood — it’s their way of life. It’s their family heritage.
For generations, their biggest worries were the weather, paying the bills, and getting the best pew on Sunday mornings. But these days, the bigger concerns are trade, the cost of inputs, and low commodity prices. As a result, for the first time on their century farm, they’re forced to rent the land to someone outside the family just so they can get by.
Tommy is on my mind a little more these days as the latest round of President Trump’s tariffs against China kick in. And while this trade war may be against China, in reality, it’s against the interests of farmers across Iowa and the country.
For over a year, President Trump has been pushing 25% tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese goods with no positive results. On Sept. 1, the Trump Administration imposed new 15% tariffs on the remaining $300 billion in Chinese goods and will raise the existing tariffs to 30% next month. In retaliation for months of erratic, short-sighted tariffs, China has stopped purchasing U.S. agricultural products and may place additional tariffs on U.S. agricultural products that they’ve already bought.
These are no small potatoes: last year, the U.S. made $9.2 billion in agricultural exports to China, making it the fifth-largest U.S. agricultural export market. As the country’s second largest agricultural exporting state, Iowa stands to lose a lot: the prices of soybeans and pork — two of our main exports to China — have already been a casualty.
President Trump’s ramped up trade war isn’t forcing China to play by the rules; instead, they’re looking elsewhere for trading partners, namely in South America. Farmers here in Iowa spent decades and millions of dollars to access the Chinese market and that progress has been wiped out in a matter of months and could take decades to rebuild — or could possibly be permanently lost.
The truth is that we’ll likely never fully rebuild this relationship. To make matters worse, President Trump is borrowing money from China to pay our farmers not to sell their products to China. How is this logical? Especially as we confront a trillion dollar deficit in 2020! American consumers end up paying twice: once in higher prices for imported goods, and again to pay for the bailout to farmers. It doesn’t matter how you look at it: Americans are losing the trade war.
“It doesn’t matter how you look at it: Americans are losing the trade war.” — J.D. Scholten
Ask any farmer and he or she will tell you that we don’t want a taxpayer-funded hand out; we want our markets back. We want a partner in trade. Even so, these handouts just aren’t cutting it. They don’t make up for the loss of income as a result of President Trump’s trade wars and abandonment of farmers. These bailouts harm our potential as an agricultural exporting country and are unnecessary to normalize trade with China.
Even if the tariffs and trade war end today — and they won’t — Iowa farmers will still struggle to make a dime. There exists a serious crisis of faith among those whose livelihoods are now being threatened by out of touch politicians who let special interests and multinational corporations dictate their agricultural policy.
As a result of the lack of farmer-focused policy, here’s what we’re facing: a half decade of low commodity prices, the rising cost of equipment, figuring out how to plant, grow, and harvest in an ever-changing climate amid more frequent floods and droughts, and market consolidation that favors multinational agribusinesses over Iowa farmers.
As if Trump’s ill-advised trade war weren’t enough of a kick in the gut for farmers, his EPA’s decision last month to grant 31 small refinery waivers exempting oil giants like Exxon Mobil and Chevron from blending biofuels into their gasoline is a further betrayal. This move saves oil conglomerates hundreds of millions of dollars, but threatens ethanol demand and the livelihoods of corn growers and the folks who work in the renewable fuels industry. Again, President Trump and his cronies will line the wallets of their high-powered, well-connected friends at the expense of farmers.
All of this to say, farmers are on the losing end of the stick. Trump may tout his wonderful, growing economy, but the picture here in rural Iowa is more like the 1980s farm crisis. Farm bankruptcies are rising. Farm incomes are plummeting. Families that have passed down farms for generations are now forced to work off the farm or to abandon their livelihoods altogether and move out of the community in hopes of making a living in another profession in a more thriving economy.
“People — not corn, soybeans, or pork — are becoming the biggest export of Iowa.” — J.D. Scholten
People — not corn, soybeans, or pork — are becoming the biggest export of Iowa. We cannot continue down this road. We cannot abandon Iowans, who have been leading the way as the agricultural heartbeat of this country.
Our community cannot afford the drain of losing more folks like Tommy. What our government needs to do is invest in places like rural Iowa and in people like him. To start, President Trump should end this unilateral, reckless trade war and bring other nations to the table to hold China to account. We must address the underlying issues that are stifling Iowa farmers like the influence of multinational mega agribusinesses, market consolidation, and low commodity prices. If we want to truly compete at the highest level in the 21st century global economy, then farmers like Tommy must be at the heart of the strategy.
This op-ed was originally published in the Sioux City Journal on September 10, 2019.