By Rebecca Heilweil
To alleviate farmers' suffering at the hands of retaliatory tariffs from China, the White House has formed a $16 billion trade assistance program, following a similar, $12 billion package that was distributed to farmers last year. But the head of the National Farmers Union says those funds won't be nearly enough, especially given concerns that President Donald's Trump's newest tariffs against Mexico could inspire further retaliation against American agriculture.
"Every year, net farming income has been dropping in this country. And then on top of that, you have all this turmoil that's created by this administration around trade," said Roger Johnson, the president of the National Farmers Union. "It's not that we shouldn't hold China accountable. It's that it seems like we feel like we have to pick fights with every major trading partner around the world, Mexico just being the latest example of that."
Net farming income has still not recovered from a drop that began in 2013. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that number will land just over $69 billion.
China has repeatedly targeted agriculture through its tariffs, retaliating against President Trump's decision to raise duties on more than $200 billion of Chinese goods.
The agriculture industry did experience some relief when the White House announced that it would lift U.S. tariffs on Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminum, a promising sign that duties levied against American farmers from those countries would too be removed. But that optimism shriveled last week after the White House announced that it would be [imposing a 5 percent tariff on Mexican goods] (https://cheddar.com/media/china-trade-tariffs-markets-down-xi-jinping), should the country not sufficiently help curb the influx of undocumented migrants at the U.S.
"There's just an enormous amount of uncertainty, and an enormous amount of stress," said Johnson. And further adding to farmers' struggles are unusual weather patterns.
In response to the tariffs against Mexico, Johnson told Cheddar in a statement on Friday that "as always, [s]hould Mexico choose to implement retaliatory tariffs, agriculture will likely be the first industry targeted. We strongly urge the President to reconsider this ham-fisted approach before we lose all of our export markets and inflict even greater damage on American farmers and ranchers."
Meanwhile, when asked about the potential impact of tariffs against Mexico on farmers, Agriculture Department Secretary Sonny Perdue told Cheddar in statement: "I encourage Congress and Mexico to work with President Trump to resolve this humanitarian crisis on both sides of the border. It is my hope that this can happen in a timely manner so tariffs do not have to be implemented." He also cautioned that the tariffs would not impact seasonal guest worker programs.
The White House has promoted trade assistance packages as its temporary remedy for tariffs that target agriculture. Last year, the Trump administration administered a $12 billion trade assistance package, which faced criticism for delayed payouts. "It was supposed to be a substitute for the market loss that we had due to the trade war. And it was a help, no doubt about it " Minnesota Farmer Shane Isane told Cheddar last month. "But most farmers don't want to get that check. We'd rather get it from our markets."
To alleviate this pain caused by China, the Trump administration announced the $16 billion assistance program, but no additional funds has yet been made available regarding tariffs by Mexico.
"Net farming income has probably declined $50 to $60 billion over the past five or six years. So we're a long ways away from making farmers whole if you will," said Johnson. "If farmers had a choice in this matter, they would much prefer to have some sort of stability, regularity, and predictability."
"They've spent millions and millions of dollars over literally decades building up foreign markets. And now our reputation is being shredded as a result of the tactics coming out of this White House," he added.
And on the prospect of whether the tariffs will impact farmers' political support for Trump, Johnson said: "they very much disagree with the approach that he's taken on trade in particular."
Meanwhile, Isane told Cheddar that "farmers have — and Middle America has — supported the president. But our patience is about gone."