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Farmers’ hopes for respite from Trump-era struggles fade amid pandemic

UPDATED: Mon., May 11, 2020

This photo from Jan. 19, 2020, shows President Donald Trump as he speaks at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s convention in Austin, Texas, where he said: “The best days for America and the best days for America’s farmers and ranchers are yet to come.” But following the coronavirus pandemic, farmers are forced to euthanize millions of hogs and chickens, give away tons of unwanted potatoes, and pour out enough milk to fill a small lake. (Susan Walsh / AP)
This photo from Jan. 19, 2020, shows President Donald Trump as he speaks at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s convention in Austin, Texas, where he said: “The best days for America and the best days for America’s farmers and ranchers are yet to come.” But following the coronavirus pandemic, farmers are forced to euthanize millions of hogs and chickens, give away tons of unwanted potatoes, and pour out enough milk to fill a small lake. (Susan Walsh / AP)
By David J. Lynch, Annie Gowen and Laura Reiley Washington Post

President Donald Trump promised this year to deliver a financial bonanza for American farmers, boosted by two historic trade deals that would free them from their dependence on government bailouts.

Instead, as the local Wendy’s runs out of hamburgers and some shelves at Costco lie bare, farmers are forced to euthanize millions of hogs and chickens, give away tons of unwanted potatoes, and pour out enough milk to fill a small lake. The closure of most U.S. restaurants amid the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the nearly $2 trillion food industry into chaos, convulsing specialized supply chains that are struggling to adjust.

From farm gate to grocery aisle, the incredible tumult of the past two months is the fault of a virus the president has dubbed the “invisible enemy” – and what critics say has been his erratic response to its attack. The health crisis also has exposed an agricultural economy that, despite repeated injections of taxpayer support, finds many farmers under growing and unexpected financial pressure.

“It’s going to be years before we return to where we were,” said Ryan Cranney, a potato farmer in Burley, Idaho, who said he faces losses of $3.5 million.

It was a triumphant president who strode onstage at the Austin Convention Center on a Sunday evening in January. Addressing an annual gathering of American farmers, he boasted about a pair of historic trade deals that would unleash a surge of lucrative orders for their soybeans, wheat and corn.

“I’ve told everybody: ‘You got to buy a lot of land, and you’ve got to get much bigger tractors right now,” Trump said. “The best days for America and the best days for America’s farmers and ranchers are yet to come.”

Four days later, and nearly 8,000 miles away, Chinese authorities struggling to control a savage respiratory virus sealed off Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. The unprecedented lockdown drew worldwide attention as evidence of an increasingly dire emergency.

The draconian action also set in motion a chain of events that obliterated the president’s sunny forecast. Instead of the record earnings he predicted in Austin, farmers this year face losses of more than $20 billion, according to the University of Missouri’s Food and Agricultural Research Institute.

Expectations of massive Chinese orders for American crops under the trade deal Trump signed shortly before traveling to Austin are clouded by an escalating war of words between Washington and Beijing over the novel coronavirus. With pandemic-related restaurant closures disrupting commercial links, farmers are being forced to plow under their crops and destroy their livestock rather than bring them to market.

Some analysts say only extraordinary federal aid will enable farmers to continue making their loan payments as the economy struggles to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Prices for commodities such as corn and wheat have dropped since March by double-digit percentages.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it. And I’ve seen some very bad times,” said Scott Glezen, 43, a dairy farmer in Lisle, New York.

This wasn’t how 2020 was supposed to play out.

As the year began, farmers were leaving behind the epic rainfall, blizzards and Arctic temperatures that had made a mess of planting and harvesting in 2019. After two years of Trump’s tariffs and retaliation by U.S. trading partners, they expected finally to reap the benefits of the president’s unconventional trade policy.

“You name it; we’ve been through it,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which hosted the president in Austin. “We thought this would be our year to kick up and get back to normal. But it’s very difficult in agriculture right now.”

The highest hopes rested on China’s commitment to roughly double over the next two years purchases of U.S. farm goods, including beef, pork, poultry, seafood, soybeans, rice and animal feed. But Trump also touted a provision in the new North American trade agreement that required Canada to open its dairy market, which was expected to produce a modest $300 million gain for American farmers.

Before the pandemic hit, Glezen, a seventh-generation dairy farmer, anticipated his first year in the black in four years. Milk prices, which had been below the cost of production since 2015, inched higher in the second half of 2019.

But in April, the Agriculture Department, which did not respond to specific questions for this story, cut its price forecast for milk by one-quarter. The nationwide move to shutter schools, restaurants and other businesses caused an immediate glut in milk supplies that normally would have been delivered to such institutions.

In late March, Glezen, who also serves as the president of a five-member co-op of dairy farmers, was told by the Missouri-based marketing firm that distributes their output to start dumping milk. On some days, he has dumped up to half the milk his cows produced into his farm’s manure lagoons.

“It’s something you can barely stand to watch,” he said. “When we see that product going down the drain, it’s painful to us.”

Support from farmers was critical to Trump’s winning coalition in states including Iowa, Wisconsin and Florida. In 2018, as Chinese retaliation for his tariffs cost them export sales, the president rushed to make them whole.

Even for an industry that annually receives several billion dollars worth of public backing – for crop insurance, income and price support payments – the latest financial safety net has been remarkable.

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