Beneath the level of congressional anguish over tariffs and the prospect of trade war, American farmers are taking a hit. Mostly that’s happening in the soybean fields of the Midwest. But Oregon agriculture will not be on the sidelines.
Writing in last Thursday’s New York Times, an Iowa radio station news director provided an on-the-ground report from America’s breadbasket. “Trump has no idea what his tariffs have unleashed for farmers,” wrote Robert Leonard, who projected the hollowing out of rural communities as longtime farmers sell their operations.
People who have never lived in farm country or known farmers likely underestimate the complexity of making a living in agriculture. They also likely do not understand the efforts that farm groups have undertaken over decades to grow their markets abroad.
When my wife and I lived in Washington, D.C., from 1978 to 1987, I watched many Northwesterners come to town to lobby. On an annual basis the most sophisticated group I encountered was the Oregon Wheat Growers League. From growing up in Pendleton, I knew some of these men. Their lobbying involved not only Capitol Hill, but also trips to the State and Agriculture departments.
In the agricultural lore of Eastern Oregon, one of the most renowned success stories was how Pendleton Grain Growers, a farmer cooperative, went to Japan in the decade following World War II. Their objective was to cultivate that market for the soft white wheat grown on the Umatilla Plateau. The cooperative’s president, James Hill (father of Astoria boat builder Tim Hill), was a leader of the delegation. To equip himself following the war, Hill earned an MBA .
In Pendleton, my childhood memories include foreign delegations of farmers from Africa and the Middle East brought to our region by the State Department. These groups were often given dinner at the home of my aunt, Amy Bedford.
The internationalism I witnessed has become a dirty word in the world of Trump. The consequences are not pretty. Leonard notes that many Iowans who helped put Trump into office now find themselves on the cold end of the president’s eagerness for trade war.
And now comes this warning in the current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. “China’s recent decision to impose a 25 percent tariff on U.S. soybean exports could reduce shipments by as much as $7.7 billion, according to a University of Tennessee study. America’s loss will be Brazil’s gain. The South American nation overtook the U.S. as the top soybean exporter in 2013, and its lead has widened since — though to the detriment of efforts to curb deforestation (of the Amazon).”
So far, Northwest agriculture is not feeling the brunt of the brewing trade war. But America’s not being in the Trans Pacific Partnership penalizes Oregon wheat growers who will likely lose ground to Canada and Australia in the Japanese and Korean markets.
The larger Northwest impacts of the Chinese tariffs will be felt by growers of hazelnuts, apples, cherries, berries and alfalfa. The beef and dairy industries will be impacted. Tariffs on wine will increase.
The Trump presidency lives on easy slogans and easy solutions. For the president’s fervent supporters, sticking it to our valued trading partners such as Canada and China is red meat. The problem is that trade policy, as it affects America’s breadbasket, does not lend itself to pat solutions, because it is a complex web of relationships that move in both directions. In matters of trade, there is no such thing as a unilateral action without retaliation and far-reaching consequences.
Steve Forrester, the former editor and publisher of The Daily Astorian, is the president and CEO of EO Media Group.