NC farmers struggle with Trump-China trade war

In President Trump’s trade war with China, one of the battlegrounds is North Carolina.

In response to U.S. tariffs, China has imposed tariffs on products that are key to North Carolina’s farm economy — soybeans, pork and poultry.

Soybean farmers, in particular, have been feeling the effect for a year since China imposed a 25 percent retaliatory tariff on U.S. soybeans. Although most of North Carolina’s soybeans are sold in-state as livestock feed, the disruption of the China market has caused a sharp decline in the price of soybeans. In 2012, the price for a bushel peaked at $17. A year ago it was around $10. Now it’s around $8, a 10-year low.

Yet, surprisingly, many soybean farmers in North Carolina are still supportive of Trump’s aggressive trade moves.

John Fleming, who with his brother grows soybeans and other crops on their 2,700-acre farm in Halifax County, says China needed to be confronted for manipulating its currency to its trade advantage, canceling crop orders when it finds cheaper products and stealing U.S. advances in crop science.

“I think farmers have been pushed around by China enough,” he says.

But in the short term, North Carolina farmers are hurting. Two hurricanes in the past three years have damaged crops, pork production — a major consumer of soybeans — has been threatened by nuisance lawsuits, record crops in the Midwest created a domestic soybean surplus and tariffs have undercut soybean prices.

“A lot of things are piling up for us at one time,” Fleming says.

Despite the pressures, Fleming says this isn’t the time to second-guess the president. He thinks the nation needs to present a united front to China. “We need bipartisan support on this. Then maybe China says, ‘Maybe we got to deal with (Trump),’ ” he says.

The issue goes beyond politics, Fleming says. “Whether you support the president doesn’t matter. You can’t put the cat back in the bag. We’re in a trade war.”

U.S. Rep George Holding (R-2nd) said he is not hearing complaints from farmers about Trump’s stand on China trade. “Many of the folks I’ve spoken with have expressed support for the president’s willingness to stand up to China,” he said in a statement. “I think people across the board realize China is an economic predator that has been taking advantage of our country for far too long.”

But fixing the imbalance could mean a long period of market disruptions for farmers in North Carolina and across the nation. Rob Handfield, an N.C. State professor who studies supply chains, says, “Everyone is betting this is going to resolve itself. I’m not so sure. This could be more of a long-term impact. We may see the tariffs become part of the woodwork.”

Thomas Grennes, an N.C. State professor emeritus who has written extensively about tariffs, says a long standoff will cost everyone: “Both sides lose in trade wars. There are no victors. Both sides gain when they trade.”

Fleming says dealing with uncertainty and lean times goes with the territory for farmers. “We really have no choice but to soldier on,” he says. “Everybody’s rubbing their foreheads from the stress, but that’s not new to farming.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com