Here’s what tariffs on China are doing to America’s farmers

For farmers, it’s been a tough couple of years in an already-tough industry. But none of that compares to the challenges that lay before us: in retaliation for tariffs from the U.S., China will no longer buy our ag exports. To put it in context, China was the fourth-largest buyer of our agricultural goods.

The high risk of scaling up

At Spinaca, and in much of California, we are row crop farmers. Of course, the stakes are always high for anyone who grows and packs food. But the stakes become exponentially higher for farmers in the midwest who grow sustenance crops like wheat, soy, corn, and sorghum. They plant thousands of acres at one time and harvest it all at once when the crop is mature and ready to go.

These are international commodities. To farm this way, a farmer has to be all-in.

If a farmer of sustenance crops is faced with any interference—say a flood, extreme heat, or federal interference—they’re finished. When absolute disaster strikes, how can they keep their farm and pay their bills, let alone make a profit? The model is set to be brilliant or bankrupt, with no options in between.

From bad to worse

At least in my lifetime, this is the worst the climate has ever been for farming in the United States. On the supply side, input costs are ever-rising. And on the demand side, the government is breaking the backs of its constituents by disrupting free trade. If the U.S.-China trade war continues into next year, we can kiss production goodbye. Once those commodities hit a global scale, there’s no more demanding a price for the crop, because another company or nation will be doing it more cheaply. Even as we debate how best to proceed, those countries will be making money hand over fist, if they aren’t already.

With regard to the tariffs, it seems like everybody wants to talk about how the cheap trinkets at Walmart are going to become more expensive. But let’s not forget the effect on our domestic farming operations. Trinkets can sit on the shelf indefinitely. Crops can’t. As a farmer, if you’re not selling it, you’re watching it die.

No wonder farm bankruptcies are up across the nation. No wonder that, according to a report from the CDC, the suicide rate for those in ag is nearly three times the rate for those in the general population.

Seriously, get out there and hug a farmer.

Buying back the farm

How can we reclaim some of what’s been lost? How can we divert what looks like a set path before us? One way is to ask consumers to swallow a higher price on their domestically-produced purchases. But people’s emotions don’t typically override their financial comfort. Only rarely will someone buy a locally—or domestically—made product that’s priced higher than one made offshore. And those who do don’t purchase enough to put a dent in the greater issue.

But with the economy and international relations being as they are, it’s worth asking ourselves:
1. What’s the true, long-term cost of us exporting our reliance on food and fiber?
2. What’s the true, long-term cost of exporting the transparency we get from our domestic food and fiber system that we don’t always get with imports?
3. What’s the true, long-term cost of exporting our reliance on other nations to feed us without the guarantee of trustworthy safety regulations?

We have a lot of control over the transparency and authenticity of the domestically-produced food and fiber that we consume. When we buy the cheap imported product, we may not be getting what we paid for, even at a lower price. That’s a big sacrifice, both for us and for our domestic producers. Ask yourself honestly: Are the cost savings worth it?

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