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Tariff Talk Weighs Heavily On Ohio's Farm Science Review

Nick Evans
Farmer Joe Brubaker says tariffs imposed by China, in retaliation against U.S. tariffs, have hurt soybean prices.

In the middle of a corn field, pathways with names like "beef," "swine" and "wool" stretch off into the distance, lined with tents hocking everything from new gadgets to heavy machinery. The Farm Science Review has a county fair type atmosphere, but it emphasizes education.

Farmers usually show up with questions about best practices for pesticides or to shop around for new equipment. But this year, talk of tariffs mixes with tractors.

Joe Brubaker’s family grows corn, wheat and soybeans.  At 92, he’s handed off the day-to-day operations to his sons, but he still keeps an eye on production, noting the soybeans are almost ready for harvest.

Brubaker admits he has concerns.

“Yeah I do,” he jumps in, “I don’t like—our price of soybeans has dropped about two dollars and fifty cents a bushel since they put that tariff on, so I hope they take it off.”

That decline comes from import duties China slapped on U.S. soybeans after the Trump administration began imposing tariffs on Chinese goods like steel and aluminum. Since then, the trade war has only escalated.

Earlier this week, President Trump announced another round of tariffs for $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. China is already moving forward with new tariffs of its own.

Some argue U.S. producers will be able find new markets for their crops. But Ben Brown, who studies farm management in The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, explains that might look alright on paper but it falls apart in practice. He says relationships between buyer and producer can’t be substituted overnight.

“Mathematically, it makes sense to reallocate soybeans,” Brown says. “It is difficult and almost impossible to re-route the supply chains in timely manner, and that’s where we start to see these differences in price.”

Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Attendees at the Farm Science Review usually discuss new technology, but the Trump administration's tariffs are overshadowing the event.

To support rural farmers, many of whom backed the president in the 2016 election, the Trump administration's Department of Agriculture will offer up to $12 billion in funding to backstop farmers hurt by what it terms “unjustified retaliation.” For soybeans, the agency will offer farmers $1.65 per bushel.

That’s good enough for Tom Boekman.

“We’ll make it,” Boekman says, matter-of-factly. “Like I say, Trump’s giving us $1.65 for our beans, we got a big bean crop, so that’ll settle out of it. So, it’ll all wash out pretty well.”

Boekman says the tariffs will hurt in the short term, but he believes now is the time for U.S. policymakers to put their foot down. He’s willing to accept the pain that comes along.

But Ohio State agricultural economist Ian Sheldon says the impacts could be bigger than many realize if the tariffs remain in place. He and Brown modeled a typical farm over a number of years, making assumptions for how many Chinese importers decide to buy crops from other countries.

Credit Nick Evans / WOSU

“Ohio farmers could lose 59 percent, see a reduction in net income by 59 percent by 2024,” Sheldon says. “That’s a significant reduction in farm income, and this $12 billion dollars is essentially a band-aid for one year.”

On Twitter, President Trump has criticized America’s trade relationship with China, calling it one-sided and unfair to farmers. But for his part, Brubaker sees things differently.

“One thing about China, they buy a lot of our soybeans—a lot of them,” he says.  “So we can’t complain too much about the stuff in the store that says ‘Made in China.’”

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.