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Tariffs not just a hill of beans for local farmers

Darren Walter inspects a soybean crop north of Grand Ridge in August 2009. "With the tariff, there's no winners, only casualties," Walter said this week of the Trump administration's trade war with China.
Darren Walter inspects a soybean crop north of Grand Ridge in August 2009. "With the tariff, there's no winners, only casualties," Walter said this week of the Trump administration's trade war with China.

The Illinois Farm Bureau believes it’s better for the tariff war with China to end than to receive a federal compensatory aid package.

“We appreciate the administration’s recognition of the damage these retaliatory tariffs have caused for Illinois farmers — and farmers across the nation. However, while we are grateful for the support from the administration, we must stress that this aid package will not make farmers whole in the face of continued trade tensions.

“The economic and marketing damage caused by these tariffs will continue as long as they’re in effect, and likely, far longer,” said Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr.

Whatever difficulties farmers face because of the tariff war, they’re up to the challenge in the view of President Donald Trump, who said Wednesday farmers “can take it.”

How are La Salle County farmers taking it?

Matt Mason has been a farmer in the Ottawa area since 1988.

“It’s extremely hard on farmers, for hogs, soybeans, everything. Soybean prices have dropped 20 percent, sometimes that’s your profit. And there’s going to be a trickle down effect for anyone who sells farm equipment, seeds, everything,” Mason said.

Mason said he recognized tariffs on Chinese goods are “long overdue” and will help other aspects of the American economy, such as the steel industry, but agriculture will be absorbing the brunt.

“Trump should know rural America got him in. The main product bought by China is soybeans. They buy about half of what we grow, so a soybean supply has to get to them by some other route. And China has developed a taste for beef and they have the expendable cash to buy it,” Mason said.

Mason noted farmers are always at the mercy of weather and markets, but “successful farmers brace themselves for the downsides and hope for the upsides,” adding, “We’ve come off a good run and it’s going to be a little tough for a while.”

David Myer has been in farming for 40 years near Marseilles — long enough to remember the 1980 Russian grain embargo instituted by then-President Jimmy Carter.

“It’s a different world now than it was when Carter put in place the embargo. The demand for crops is increasing every year, and South America is stepping up production. World markets and politics play a big part,” Myer said.

Myer noted soybeans have been the “ideal” crop for the past few years because they’re less costly to grow than corn. In his experience, trade embargoes cause initial pain, which eventually eases. In this connection, Myer said the markets have been inching back after their plunge.

“Most farmers feel our president has our best interest in mind. We’re struggling, but long term, this might have a silver lining. China needs the soybeans. They’ll buy them from somewhere,” Myer said.

Darren Walter comes from a farming family that has tilled the soil in the Grand Ridge area for generations.

“With the tariff, there’s no winners, only casualties. It’ll cause a downhill slide that will affect the guy that sells seed, the guy that sells the pickup truck. It’ll effect the whole community. It feeds on itself. With soybean prices down, everybody may plant corn next year, but then what will that do to corn prices?” Walter said.

Walter pointed out China prefers American soybeans over the South American crop because American beans do not have dust as do those from the Southern Hemisphere. Further, South America buys beans from the U.S. because it’s cheaper, creating the possibility China may obtain American beans through Latin America.

Walter said bean prices have rebounded a bit, but the immediate future looks to be topsy-turvy.

“The other day American and Chinese diplomats said they were going to work something out and prices jumped 28 cents. Then they said they weren’t and prices dropped 18 cents,” Walter said. “And every day our president says something on Twitter that makes the market go one way or the other. I never thought I’d have to make farming decisions based on Twitter.”

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