China puts U.S. soybean purchases on hold as tariff war escalates, producers face ‘a perfect storm’

WASHINGTON — News that China is holding off on making new purchases of U.S. soybeans is just the latest bad news for Midwestern grain farmers.

In addition to the ongoing trade dispute, China is dealing with a deadly swine fever outbreak that’s wiping out its hogs and further depressing the need for soybeans used in livestock feed.

Wet weather in the Midwest, meanwhile, is prompting more farmers to plant soybeans instead of corn, which could ultimately translate into bigger soybean surpluses and even lower prices.

“You kind of have a perfect storm when it comes to soybean producers,” said Jordan Dux, Nebraska Farm Bureau’s director of national affairs.

Bloomberg News reported Thursday that China has put a hold on new soybean purchases, although it’s not canceling previous purchases.

That story didn’t exactly shock American farmers.

After all, U.S. soybean shipments to China typically taper off this time of year anyway.

And the amount of soybeans China has been buying was already far below normal.

Still, the news goes to the overall story of how the ongoing trade war with China is socking the midsection of the country.

“It underscores that we have a problem in rural America as it relates to what the economic situation looks like,” Dux said. “We’re not in the ’80s (farm crisis) yet by any means, but it’s starting to get troublesome out there for folks.”

When President Donald Trump addressed the China issue on Thursday, he touted the tariffs being collected.

“So the United States taxpayer is paying for very little of it,” Trump said.

But the hit to taxpayers can be seen in various ways, including a fresh round of farm aid that the administration is preparing. At $16 billion, this year’s program is expected to surpass last year’s payments to farmers to help offset the trade hit.

Dux said that farmers would rather have the trade but that such aid payments are appreciated.

Farm state lawmakers have hit similar notes — that they would much rather see new trade agreements negotiated. But they aren’t objecting to the aid payments.

“The breakdown of talks with China is concerning, as our producers need access to markets,” Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said in a statement Thursday. “Transitional payments only provide a short term bridge; what our producers really need is for the administration to re-engage with China as soon as practical to try to bring this issue to a successful resolution. The only long-term solution is lasting trade agreements.”

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said in a statement that she appreciates the president standing up to bad actors on trade such as China.

“But our Nebraska ag producers are feeling uncertainty and frustration when it comes to trade,” she said. “On a positive note, the administration is taking steps to open other markets, including the Japanese market and the USMCA.”

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is the Trump administration’s replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement. That pact must still be approved by Congress, and a Thursday announcement by Trump could compromise the deal.

He said that starting June 10, he will slap a 5% tariff on Mexico to pressure it to do more to crack down on Central American migrants trying to cross into the U.S.

“The Tariff will gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied,” he wrote on Twitter.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement that China’s announcement “won’t have much of an effect since soybean exports to China are already at near-zero levels because of their tariffs.”

“But that doesn’t help soybean farmers or give us much cause for optimism,” he said. “It does underscore the need for the Chinese to return to the negotiating table and work with the United States to reach a reasonable deal as soon as possible.”

Said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., in a statement: “Nebraska farmers tell me all the time that they want more trade, not aid.”

At the same time, Sasse said, Nebraskans see clearly that China’s government is an adversary to the U.S.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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