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Farmers come to Omaha, fret over low crop prices

December 17, 2018

Farmers who are losing money as a result of a U.S.-China trade spat said in Omaha recently that they need more certainty on trade so they can recover lost income and make plans for next year.

More than 2,000 farmers from 42 states and Canada attended the Farmer2Farmer annual convention hosted by Farmers Business Network on Wednesday through Friday at CHI Health Center Omaha.

Tracy Zink, 48, who farms corn, soybeans, grain sorghum and wheat near Indianola in southwest Nebraska, said she made the trek to Omaha to learn more about how she can improve her operations.

She was one of many who said they were focused on navigating a more complex economic environment for agriculture, with a particular emphasis on trade and President Donald Trump’s trade fight with China.

“We’re not big fist-pounders unless it’s trying to fix something or push a cow through a gate,” she said of the trade disruption’s impact on farm income. “Most everyone wants this taken care of.”

The stakes are high: Without China in the market, demand has dropped and farmers are fetching between 15 and 25 percent less for soybeans than the prices they got before the trade spat. And even a new wave of Chinese purchases aren’t likely to make up for the lost revenue.

Farmers have had to pay more for storage to keep beans that had been headed to China. Now those beans are in bins and warehouses, waiting for buyers.

Nebraska was the fourth-largest U.S. producer of soybeans in 2017 and fifth-largest soybean exporter, according to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. Soybeans were the state’s top exported good, ahead of corn and cattle in the most recent available statistics.

That is expected to change in 2018, because of a tit-for-tat trade war brewing between the U.S. and China. The Trump administration slapped tariffs on Chinese goods, saying it needed to negotiate improved protections for American intellectual property and boost market access for American goods.

The trade disputes with China and other trading partners have already cost Nebraska farmers more than $1 billion, according to a recent report from the Nebraska Farm Bureau.

The Chinese government imposed tariffs on more than 90 percent of agricultural items the country imports from the U.S. And China stopped buying U.S. soybeans for months, from late July until a small buy this month.

Greg Beebe, 48, who farms seed corn and soybeans near North Bend, Nebraska, said farmers understand the conceptual need for the president to negotiate fairer trade balances, but “it’s tough.”

Popcorn growers are feeling the pinch, too. And corn growers are worried that soybean growers will shift more acreage to corn next year and drive down prices, said Charles Baron, a Farmers Business Network co-founder.

His company helps by giving large and small farmers access to better information to make decisions, from which seeds to plant at what price to analytical data about how seeds perform on types of land.

The company has grown from a Silicon Valley startup to one that counts more than 7,000 members who pay roughly $700 a year to research whether they can save or do more with what they’ve got.

But farmers need more than data and government programs to make themselves whole, said Kevin McNew, Farmers Business Network’s chief economist. They need better, more dependable access to markets, he said.

That’s what Brian Brown, 54, wants, along with his son, Jake, 23. It’s part of what brought them to town for the conference. The two farm corn, soybeans, popcorn and more near Central City, Nebraska.

They want more access to China’s market. They said farmers want progress now because they want their crop sold where it’s needed. Both also said they welcomed a new farm bill, which the president was expected to sign.

“It was time to get it passed,” Brian Brown said. “Our margins are very thin. If the economy doesn’t change in our favor soon, there’s going to be a lot of people going out of business.”

Many farmers The World-Herald talked to said they hoped their fellow Nebraskans in cities and suburbs understand the economic stakes. Much of Nebraska’s urban economy is tied to agriculture’s success.

Beebe said farmers, like other people who own businesses, take great risk each year by putting up much of the money they’ve made or borrowing money to buy seed and plant it.

A new farm bill and its safety measures are welcome, he said, but additional risk, from outside sources or those in Washington, D.C., rarely helps, he said.

American farmers need more assurances on trade to feel better about rebuilding relationships with former customers and solidifying relationships with new ones, Zink said.

“If we have the opportunity to have something solidified,” she said, “it gives us a chance to plan.”

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