Farmers, tariffs, and floods: struggles in Nebraska ag and how you can help

By Reid Marco, Husker Writers

Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series of persuasive essays produced in partnership with the University of Nebraska’s Husker Writers program in spring 2019. Students in Prof. Mark Houston’s English 254 course worked with ninth graders at Lincoln High School to research a specific topic embedded with civic engagement during the spring semester. For more on the project, click here.

Author’s note: I just finished up my freshman year at Nebraska, ending the semester on this writing project. I am majoring in secondary education social sciences with a minor in history. After college, I plan on serving as a high school or middle teacher in Nebraska. This project was a lot of fun to research and create. I hope you enjoy reading it and can take something useful away from your experience.

In January 2018, Donald Trump set in motion a series of tariffs that would reap a trade war that is still hotly debated today. What started as a few taxes on washing machines and solar panels being shipped to China has transcended into an all-out economic conflict with various different foreign powers, including some of our closest allies. This offensive has triggered a near equal, but opposite, retaliation effort among the powers targeted by President Trump’s tariffs. This meaning that the goods that the U.S. has long since shipped these powers have been hit with, you guessed it, tariffs. With food, beverage, and feed being the number one U.S. export as of 2017,  it is easy to see where other countries can and have hit America where it hurts: agriculture.

Amidst all of this large scale conflict, it can be easy to overlook those who stimulate our economy and trade at the fundamental level. When egos are the driving force behind foreign policy, and not what is in the nation’s best interest- financially or diplomatically, then the consequences of poor decisions trickle down to the citizens.

More importantly, the citizens that depend on the global market staying consistent to make ends meet. In this case, it is the farmers of my home state: Nebraska. Soybean farmers in Nebraska, and other states, of course, are struggling, resorting to measures like limiting basic spending procedures and in some cases, selling the farms that have been in families for generations. All of this as a direct result to Donald Trump’s poorly waged trade war. Added to that, a government shutdown and severe flooding have left farmers in a state of uncertainty regarding the future of agriculture in the midwest.

To start off, it is important to understand why imposing tariffs on foreign goods seemed like a good idea in the first place. Tariffs are most often implemented in an effort to promote domestic reliance of goods that would otherwise be traded to other countries. With the “America First” mentality that has become all too popular in recent years, it is understandable to see why this could have been received as a spirited idea. Growing our own food and utilizing our own manufacturing industry to our advantage sounds ideal, hypothetically. However, making this transition from being a world trade powerhouse to a self-supplied reclusive state is impossible. We rely too much on what other people produce and the same can be said for nearly every nation. Increasing domestic production does no good if there is nobody to sell to or if it is being sold at insufficient rates due to tariffs being slapped on left and right from both sides of the conflict. Even if we could achieve this dream of isolation, what would America do with 4.31 billion bushels of soybeans every year?

The fact of the matter is that the tariffs did not increase domestic reliance of U.S. produced goods. But what they did do was exemplify our dependence on goods pouring in from other countries as well as our need for other countries to buy our products. Not to mention that the trade war has dealt a severe blow to our relationship with China and other close allies like Mexico and Canada, who were also struck by Trump’s tariffs. I cannot stress enough that the companies and CEOs affected will most likely survive as a result of this conflict, but it is the workforce, the local farmers, those that live paycheck to paycheck, harvest to harvest, who ultimately suffer and are currently doing so.

Essentially, U.S. soybean farmers rely on China to make their income. Of course, other nations participate in the soybean trade, but compared to China, their role is almost negligible. Now take China away from the scene, and there is great reason to panic. “So far [in 2018], American farmers have sold some 8.2 million metric tons of soybeans to China, down from 21.4 million metric tons during the same period in 2017, according to the latest USDA figures. For the month of October, soybean sales to China fell from 7.1 million metric tons last year to just 300,000 metric tons this year.” It is plain to see that Trump’s tariffs had a direct impact on just how many soybeans China would purchase. The result was a sharp decline in soybean sales and revenue. This is money lost that would be otherwise be going into Nebraska farmers’ pockets, retirement plans, agriculture technology, and so on. The decline in the soybean market has led to farmers planting fewer acres of soybeans as a whole.

The influence has forced Nebraska farmers to make some major changes. Some folks make cutbacks while others are completely rethinking how they go about their daily routines, like Doug Saathoff, a third generation soybean farmer “whose great-grandfather began farming around Trumbull in the late 1800s, planted his first soybean in 1996 and hasn’t lost money since. Even droughts haven’t hurt because there’s plenty of underground water. But that streak is in jeopardy, thanks to President Trump’s trade war with China, which has pummeled soybean exports and prices. Increasingly anxious about his family’s livelihood, the 44-year-old has taken small steps to save money, such as canceling satellite television and buying a used combine harvester rather than a new one.”

These may not seem like the most lifestyle altering changes, but they do mean that quality of life is on the decline. The same goes for the actual product and crop that is being farmed. Poorer equipment leads to less efficient harvesting which means even less of a payout than the farmers are already seeing from the tariff strife.

The sad truth is that the rate at which farmers are filing for bankruptcy has exponentially grown over the past few years. Many are getting bailed out while others have been forced to make the decision to sell their land. “A total of 84 farms in the upper Midwest filed for bankruptcy between July 2017 and June 2018, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. That’s more than double the number of Chapter 12 filings during the same period in 2013 and 2014 in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana.” This trend will only get steeper as time goes on with no progress on the U.S.’s dealings with China.

Now, of course, the Trump administration is not doing nothing to aid farmers throughout this process. Cory Walters, an agriculture economics professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, stated that soybean farmers may not be “backed into a corner quite yet,” while also noting that “crop insurance, specifically revenue protection, which protects against yield loss created by hail, drought or other causes, as well as price loss created by market forces, will likely also play a part should the demand for U.S. soybeans remain low.” A total of $12 billion is being set aside to make up for the losses that the tariff war has triggered. While this is reassuring, recent events have led to this money being poorly distributed to farmers.

In December of 2018, a political quarrel about funding for a wall on the United States’ southern border with Mexico led to a government shutdown. While politicians were refusing to meet and compromise over this topic, the shutdown led to thousands of farmers waiting in line to receive the $12 billion in subsidies that they were owed.

At least 37,213 applications for the Market Facilitation Program piled up after the Department of Agriculture was shuttered along with eight other Cabinet-level agencies in December, according to data obtained by Business Insider through a public-records request. The latest available data runs from December 22 to January 16, so it does not include the last week and a half of the five-week shutdown. None of those applications were approved until after local Farm Service Agency offices, which process and distribute support payments, began to reopen the following month.

For the duration of the longest shutdown in United States history, farmers in all states were being neglected. The public was never really made aware of this, but the entire time the agricultural backbone of this country was left out to dry. However, for Nebraskans, this roadblock would be far easier to overcome than what lay ahead.

In March of 2019, a series of floods from Nebraska’s rivers would ransack the state. Many of the people that found themselves in the middle of this disaster are still left with nothing, especially farmers. On top of the tariff war and the government shutdown, mother nature decided that it wanted to contribute to the suffering of these working Nebraskans, leaving over $1.3 billion in damages. Farmlands were ransacked and large amounts of equipment were left damaged beyond repair. Debris like sand and other sediments remain piled on top of what was previously a fertile haven of soil. Much of this land is now incapable of growing crops like soybeans. But there is one crop that can withstand harsh growing conditions.

This is where you as a reader, a citizen, and a voter come into play. Aside from doing things like purchasing locally grown produce and donating to those affected by the floods, which are both fantastic ideas, by the way, you can get civically engaged! A bill has just recently passed through its initial series of debates in the Nebraska State Legislature. This bill would allow for hemp to be grown by farmers in Nebraska as another means of income. Hemp has always been eyed as something that can be extremely beneficial to Nebraska’s economy, with the potential to bring in millions of dollars in revenue for the state over the next few years. Due to recent flooding, hemp is no longer seen as a perk or a side job to farmers. Since hemp is one of the only crops that is capable of growing in malnourished soil, it might become one of the sole sources of income for those whose land has been rendered incapable of growing soybeans or corn. Many local politicians are on board with this movement and the bill seems to be making steady progress. As for any lawmakers that do not see the obvious benefits of allowing hemp to be grown in Nebraska and wish to kill the bill, well you have the power to ensure that they see limited time in office.

Get out and vote. Vote on all levels of government as they all affect you. Vote at the federal level. Put someone at the steering wheel who cares about every single American and represents us in a dignified manner. Not someone who ruins diplomatic relationships with allies to cultivate large scale economic trade wars out of thin air. Not someone who shuts down the government and leaves our farmers to fend for themselves while claiming that he cares. As vital as it is to get educated and involved at the national level, it is just as important to participate at the local level. Show support for bills that aid our farmers with invaluable resources, like that which being pushed to allow for hemp to be grown in the state. State elections often get overlooked, but they affect all Nebraskans in their daily lives. When considering that some of these elections can be decided an extremely thin margin of votes, you truly do hold more power than you realize.

In conclusion, a lot of hardships among Nebraska’s farmers have left many uncertain for the future of agriculture in the midwest, and a large portion of those struggles can be traced back to Donald Trump’s mishandling of diplomatic trade. Efforts to make up for losses may come up short in the long run. What good is $12 billion in subsidies if it is poorly distributed? Will it even be enough, considering the damages of an ever-changing environment? Should the taxpayer have to see their dollars go towards bailing out farmers when this entire trade situation could have been avoided in the first place? There is hope for these farmers, and it all rides on you getting out and voting. Support these people and act in the interest of what is best for everyone. Being civically engaged might not make you cool, but it is something that we as citizens must take responsibility for. For farmers affected and for us all.