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Expect an upper cut to ag’s gut

This Business of Farming: Biden’s left hook to China may not have been a sucker punch, but agriculture will likely end up with the most bruises.

Pam Caraway, Farm Futures executive editor

May 17, 2024

4 Min Read
Expect an upper cut to ag’s gut
Getty images/v-graphix

President Joe Biden’s “specific and targeted” tariff increases on Chinese imports escalate a battle that started under the Trump administration. And agriculture will take the direct hit.

Talk about collateral damage.

China responded to the volley fired by Trump in 2018, with tariffs on more than $110 billion of U.S. products, including ag products such as soybeans, pork and ethanol. And the hits fell harder through 2020 when the U.S. and China reached an agreement that left most tariffs in place but set goals for Chinese imports of U.S. goods.

In April, Bryce Knorr, a market analyst and contributor to Farm Futures, posed this question: “Will [China’s] relations with the U.S. stay on the rails, or could another trade war boil over with a change in the White House?”

We didn’t have to wait that long. The answer came May 11 when Biden announced tariff increases — some as high as 100% — on a variety of Chinese goods, including electric vehicles, steel and aluminum, legacy semiconductors, battery components, critical minerals, solar cells, cranes, and medical products.

When the headline said “EVs,” I wasn’t all that bothered. But think of the fallout. Many of those other goods may seem trivial to legislators but are essential to farm operations including machinery, irrigation equipment, fertilizer and veterinary supplies.

Rural America takes direct hit

Here is some feedback from farmers about the first round of this tariff war under President Donald Trump, provided by an Iowa State University survey, in 2019:

  • More than 80% wanted the trade disruption to end.

  • Over 70% believed U.S. farmers would bear the brunt of the tariffs.

  • More than 60% of farmers said the U.S. is losing customers to competitors as a result.

And here’s where we stand in 2024:

Down and still out. The trade disruption is alive and well six years later.

Ag nearly knocked cold. Farmers did bear the brunt of the tariffs. The impact on the ag industry is virtually incalculable. The $23 billion paid out between 2018 and 2020 as compensatory Market Facilitation Payments cost taxpayers $28 billion. Those outside agriculture don’t understand why those payments were made, yet many farmers weren’t fully compensated for their losses.

We also lost jobs, particularly in the service areas, with rural communities hit hardest. Some calculations partially attribute today’s higher food prices to the tariff war. Many consumers blame farmers for those higher prices, further bruising agriculture.

U.S. market still bleeding. Customers, most notably China, were lost. The strike to the shin is that Argentina and Brazil are now China’s favored suppliers — which, barring a cataclysmic weather event, likely won’t change.

“The reality is that unless Brazil or Argentina faces arduous growing conditions in future years, which results in lower production, they are currently a favored global supplier of soybeans for many countries,” wrote Naomi Blohm, senior market adviser at Total Farm Marketing, a recent column for Farm Futures.

And the losses keep piling up. China offered a little foreshadowing of its response to this tariff announcement in March when it canceled wheat shipments.

Who won tariff battle?

All of that aside, Midwest farmers told ISU they expected to be better off within three years of Trump’s tariff action. Pandemic notwithstanding, farmers are faring worse — especially if USDA’s 2024 pre-tariff farm income forecast is accurate.

The Republican party, however, may have tallied substantial wins, according to a report posted at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“The trade war appears to have been successful in strengthening support for the Republican party. Residents of tariff-protected locations became less likely to identify as Democrats and more likely to vote for President Trump,” according to NBER’s “Help for the Heartland? The Employment and Electoral Effects of the Trump Tariffs in the United States.”

The report continues: “Although the goal of bringing back jobs to the heartland remained elusive, voters in regions that had borne the economic brunt of Chinese import competition in the 1990s and 2000s were particularly likely to reward the Trump government for its tariff policy.”

Given that response, who is surprised that the Democrats now expect to gain a political advantage by renewing a tariff war with China?

Agriculture, long known for voting against its economic benefit, supported the 2018 tariff battle with an eye toward long-term gain, getting the “monkey off our back,” if you will. What we’re seeing instead is a steady stream of losses: lower demand and increased input prices. How did the grace of government checks in the form of MFPs impact your operation? Some regions were overcompensated. Some were short-changed. The sequence of these events indicates China saw this coming. With the benefit accruing to U.S. political parties, it’s conservative rural voters who now feel sucker-punched.

About the Author(s)

Pam Caraway

Farm Futures executive editor

Pam Caraway became executive editor of Farm Futures in 2024. She has amassed a career in ag communications, including leadership roles in editorial, marketing and public relations. No stranger to the Farm Progress editorial team, she has served as editor of former publications Florida Farmer and Southern Farmer, and as a senior staff writer at Delta Farm Press.

She started her writing career at Northwest Florida Daily News in Fort Walton Beach. She also worked on agrochemical accounts at agencies Bader Rutter and Rhea + Kaiser.

Caraway says working as an ag communications professional is the closest she can get to farming – and still earn a paycheck. She’s been rewarded for that passion and drive with multiple writing and marketing awards, most notably: master writer from the Agricultural Communicators Network, a Plant Pathology Journalism Award from the American Phytopathological Society, and the Reuben Brigham Award from the Association for Communication Excellence.

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