WASHINGTON — A new report from the Nebraska Farm Bureau demonstrates how trade disruptions are hammering the state’s agricultural exports.
“These kind of things that happen at the international level directly impact the bottom line of our producers and affect the economics of our communities and our counties,” said Jay Rempe, the group’s senior economist. “And, unfortunately, I think it shows that we could continue to see a downward slide on some of these things.”
Rempe said that the environment is not as dire as past farm crises, such as the devastation of the mid-1980s, but that the situation will continue to take a toll unless it’s resolved.
The latest Nebraska report comes as President Donald Trump threatens further tariffs on products from China after that country reportedly backtracked on previously agreed-upon items in negotiations.
And the NAFTA replacement known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement has yet to be sent to Capitol Hill.
Trump, meanwhile, continues to extol the virtues of tariffs, telling reporters on Thursday that he sees them as valuable tools.
Thursday’s report covers data through 2017 and highlights the stakes involved for trade-dependent farm country.
Overall, Nebraska farm exports were $6.4 billion in 2017, almost $200 million less than the year before, according to the report. That drop was driven by a $130 million drop in soybean exports and a $140 million drop in corn exports.
One bright spot: Nebraska beef exports actually increased.
“Fortunately, beef was a rock star in 2017,” Rempe said.
That difference resulted in geographic disparity within the state — many counties in eastern Nebraska with lots of soybean production saw their exports fall, while counties in the beef-heavy Sand Hills fared better.
While urging the completion of trade deals, Farm Bureau officials avoided harsh criticism of Trump’s fondness for tariffs.
“The president has his particular ways of going about negotiating trade deals,” the group’s president, Steve Nelson, said. “While we don’t always agree with those tactics, we certainly understand the need to make good trade deals to work on these serious issues that are out there.”
On Capitol Hill, GOP lawmakers say that their constituents are certainly frustrated with trade disruptions but that they understand what’s going on.
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa said that she doesn’t like tariffs but that the U.S. can’t let China keep walking all over it. And she said the farmers she represents get it.
“If we don’t see progress on a trade deal, yeah, they’re not going to be as friendly towards the administration, but I would say in this case, it’s China that’s not holding up their end of the bargain,” she said. “And what I’ve heard is that farmers want a good deal.”
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Lincoln represents many of those soybean-heavy counties in eastern Nebraska that have seen big drops in exports.
“This reckoning has to take place with China,” he said. “Their practices are unfair. It has to take place. Nebraska farmers know that, and yet the disruptions being caused from that are real.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa — chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade — has been to the White House repeatedly to talk about the issue.
Grassley defended the president’s approach to China, saying he doesn’t want to see a repeat of what has happened under previous administrations, when it appeared that progress had been made but resulting agreements proved unenforceable.
But Grassley also expressed continued frustration that Trump won’t drop tariffs on steel and aluminum that the senator says are holding up a NAFTA replacement.
“I don’t understand the unwillingness of him just to move ahead when he’s got a victory within grasp,” Grassley said.