As farmers take to the fields to plant, they find themselves in a political environment as unpredictable as the weather in Kansas.
It’s been a long while since the nation had a president who acted to decrease trade with foreign nations.
For Kansas grain farmers, foreign markets are vital, so it’s no small deal that tariffs and tough talk are driving down grain prices and damaging overseas markets for wheat, pork, corn, sorghum and other agricultural products.
Agriculture has been a bright spot on the global trade scene, reliably showing a trade surplus year after year. Between 2000 and 2016, exports of Kansas farm products more than doubled. That’s on a volume basis. If you consider the years in which crop prices were relatively high, the increases look even bigger.
Nationally, exports of ag products reached a peak of about $152 billion in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That peak correlates with high prices for wheat, corn and other farm products.
American farmers grow way too much food for the domestic market. Without global markets, they can’t survive.
The recent slump in the ag markets is not entirely President Donald Trump’s fault. Agricultural markets are shaped by the value of the dollar relative to other currencies, availability of grains and goods from other exporting countries, the weather, transportation costs and other factors.
But the president’s trade policies have not helped.
Quite the opposite.
And he knows it. When asked about the impact that his trade war with China was having on agriculture, Trump said farmers were patriots and would understand if their way of life was undercut by his policies.
The near-silence of Kansas’ senators and congressmen on the issue of trade has been frustrating, but it’s no longer surprising.
It’s hard to know whether our elected officials are cowed by the president’s bullying tactics and threats against those who oppose him, or whether they think they can persuade Trump to take a more reasonable course of action with flattery and obeisance.
Many farmers continue to see the situation with patient-but-wary eyes. They seem to be sticking by Trump, who promised fewer regulations and a better economy.
In a story for the Los Angeles Times, some California farmers provided insight about their support of the president. One noted that farm prices in general tend to do better during Democratic administrations. And certainly farmers who have employed immigrants found previous administrations more accommodating.
However, the farmer said, that doesn’t automatically send farmers to the blue side of the ballot. Democrats’ propensity for higher taxes and more regulations outweigh dissatisfaction with Trump.
And, as one farmer noted, California’s Democratic candidates aren’t getting any more conservative.
For the most part, fruit and vegetable farmers in California have fared better than grain farmers and livestock producers in the Midwest under Trump’s trade policies. And some fruit and vegetable producers will be helped if Trump kills NAFTA because they will gain a competitive advantage over South American and Latin American producers.
Farmers interviewed in the Times story suggested that they still hope that somewhere behind the tariffs and threats is a plan to make the U.S. economy stronger.
But there is little to suggest Trump’s plan will aid agriculture or the ability of the United States to compete globally.
Trump has said repeatedly that he dislikes trade pacts involving more than two nations. He wants a series of one-on-one deals. Such an approach is simple-minded in a global economy in which components for your car, your phone and countless other products come from three or more countries.
For 30 years, trade pacts have expanded markets for U.S. goods, especially agricultural goods. Overall, exports have roughly doubled since 2000, according to U.S. Census data.
Yes, imports have grown too. But Americans should be less concerned about the trade deficit number than about the ability to expand our markets globally and increase exports.
That’s not where U.S. trade policy is headed under Trump.
Given the record, the president’s tariffs and tough talk qualify not as economic policy but as a political expedient, designed to win votes in swing states, rather than to expand global markets for U.S. goods.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.