Russell Boening, a Texas farmer and rancher who’s also president of the Texas Farm Bureau, is starting to feel the effects of escalating trade conflicts between the United States and its trading partners, namely China. In response to tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum enacted by the Trump administration earlier this year, China has placed its own tariffs on a litany of U.S. farm products. One of those, grain sorghum, is a livestock feed grain Boening grows along with 4,500 other farms in Texas. Its price has dropped by 25 percent in the last two months, he said, prompting him to store the grain and pray that prices improve before he puts the crop on a suddenly limited market. “This will be an extra cost, but as true optimists, we are hopeful that the market will improve,” Boening told the U.S. House Ways and Means trade subcommittee on Wednesday. “There are many farmers and ranchers who are facing the same challenges with all the uncertainty over trade policy.”
But Boening stopped short of blaming the Trump administration for the tight spot that he and other Texas farmers have been put in. Beyond sorghum, China and other U.S. trading partners have threatened or levied retaliatory tariffs on beef, wheat, corn, cotton and pork — all dominant Texas agriculture products valued together at approximately $18 billion. Instead of using Wednesday’s venue to criticize the president, Boening told Congress that farmers “must commend President Trump for working to solve problems that have existed for decades,” pointing to China’s illegal crop subsidies that undercut the global market. He then implored the administration to take into account the fact that “these decisions have the ability to greatly damage our livelihoods.”
So far that’s been the party line, so to speak, of Texas’ overwhelmingly Republican farmers and ranchers. A Texas cotton and sorghum farmer who exports nearly his entire harvest to China told the Dallas Morning News this month that he likes Trump, but “I don’t think there has ever been a time when there is so much money on the line.” The Texas Farm Bureau didn’t immediately respond to Observer questions on Thursday.
Even without the tariffs, the situation in U.S. farm country is growing more precarious every day. Net farm income has declined by half since 2013, and median farm incomes for 2018 are expected to dip to -$1,316, according to the USDA. In January, agriculture lenders predicted this year would see even more farmers filing for Chapter 12 bankruptcy.
In that context, Wednesday’s hearing was especially notable. Along with Boening, the panel included a Washington State fruit farmer who grows half of the cherries the state ships to China; a Montana rancher and grain farmer; an economist for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and others. “There’s been very few issues in my career as a farmer that cause me to lose sleep, but this is one of them,” said Michelle Erickson-Jones, the Montana farmer, but she and others were careful not to attack the Trump administration directly.
Republican members of the subcommittee took a similar tack: bemoaning the hardships borne by farmers as a result of retaliatory tariffs, but declining to lay the blame at the president’s feet. “I know the administration didn’t intend for U.S. agriculture to be harmed, but the damage is predictable,” said trade subcommittee chair Dave Reichert, a Republican from Washington. Dallas Congressman Kenny Marchant, the only Texas Republican on the subcommittee, did not speak during the three-hour hearing. Nor did Representative Lloyd Doggett, the state’s sole Democrat on the subcommittee.