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Shawn Vestal: Worried farmers keep wondering if Trump will pivot on detrimental trade policies

Wheat is harvested last year south of Spokane near Fairfield. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Wheat is harvested last year south of Spokane near Fairfield. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

President Trump reaped a lot of support in farm country. Farm country might wonder if it’s reaping any from him.

When Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers warned there could be “catastrophic” consequences for farmers.

When he proposed his budget – a wish-list with little chance of passage – it included steep cuts to crop insurance programs that farmers rely on.

When he announced he would impose tariffs on the imports of steel and aluminum, he set off fears of retaliatory action from other countries. If countries that buy our wheat – or sorghum or corn or soybeans – decide to respond in kind against the tariffs, it would be a major blow to the nation’s farm economy.

If there is surprise in farm country, though, there shouldn’t be. Trump made his views clear regarding trade and globalization on the campaign trail, and he nevertheless drew substantial majorities in rural Eastern Washington’s agricultural counties (minus Whitman County, unsurprisingly) as well as rural farm areas around the country.

There are lots of reasons for that beyond trade, of course. But it was clear that many farmers and farm organizations were counting on some kind of a pivot after Trump won. As the head of the state Farm Bureau, John Stuhlmiller, put it before the election, “I would submit there is room for movement from rhetoric to reality.”

That hasn’t happened. No pivot. No evolution. And ag organizations are sounding the alarm.

“We have repeatedly warned that the risks of retaliation and the precedent set by such a policy have serious potential consequences for agriculture,” the National Association of Wheat Growers and the U.S. Wheat Associates said in a statement about the tariff plan last week. “It is dismaying that the voices of farmers and many other industries were ignored in favor of an industry that is already among the most protected in the country.”

These concerns are particularly pressing in Washington state, whose wheat farmers send the vast majority of their crop to market overseas. Washington farmers are already on high alert over the TPP decision, which they say threatens their ability to sell wheat to Japan and other Pacific Rim countries.

Japan is the 2nd largest market for Washington wheat. The Washington Association of Wheat Growers said last month that if the TPP were formalized by the 11 remaining member countries, without the U.S. participating, “our growers could experience a catastrophic loss of sales, depressing farm gate prices even lower than they are today.”

Well, the TPP was formalized by those 11 countries March 9.

Michelle Hennings, executive director of the association, said in a statement that operating outside the agreement would put U.S. farmers at a $65-million-per-metric-ton disadvantage with their trading partners. In case you’re not keeping up with the metric ton prices, that would be the equivalent of Canada selling its wheat at a 37 percent discount over U.S. farmers.

“We could lose a huge part of our market,” Hennings said in the statement.

On the face of it, the steel and aluminum tariffs would seem to have less of an impact on farm country. But if other countries were to retaliate, they would likely look at U.S. ag imports as one of the first places, experts say.

Consider this recent example: In late 2017, Trump imposed tariffs on washing machines and solar panels imported from China. China responded by opening an “anti-dumping” probe into American sorghum, threatening a $1.1 billion export market for American farms. Many farmers now fear a similar response on soybeans.

There remains the trickle of a hopeful undercurrent on the part of agricultural organizations. They’re calling on Trump to re-enter the TPP. They say they’re hopeful they’ll be able to persuade the president to change his mind about the tariffs – and generally about actions that might precipitate trade wars.

They’re hoping, in other words, for the same thing they’ve been hoping for all along. The pivot. The evolution. The arrival of reality.