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Farmer Fatigue: Farmers Grow Weary Of Trade War, But Most Stick With Trump



Western KY farmer Tom Folz fears a prolonged trade war could push some farmers out of business. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Tom Folz drives around on a sunny, August afternoon and surveys the thousands of acres of dark green, leafy soybean plants and tall stalks of corn he grows on his sprawling farm in Christian County, Kentucky.

At 54, Folz has wispy, white hair matching his white mustache. It’s taken him several long work weeks to get his crop to where it is today.

“You got to be a little bit ‘off’ to be a farmer,” Folz said. ”You don’t get to enjoy anything during harvest and planting season because we’re working.”

He said his crop has grown well, which is something not all farmers here can say. Ohio Valley farmers were unable to plant almost 1.6 million acres this year – most of that in northwest Ohio – because of excessive rainfall and flooding. Across the country, farmers faced similar weather-related struggles.

On top of bad weather, Folz worries about the country’s increasingly stormy relations with trading partners, especially China. A trade war with escalating tariffs by both the U.S. and China has stretched for more than a year now, with the latest salvos coming Friday: China announced more retaliatory tariffs on $75 billion worth of U.S. goods, including soybeans, pork, wheat and other agricultural products. President Donald Trump responded with higher tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports. Trump also called for American companies to cut ties with China.

Folz fears it will continue to depress the prices he gets for his harvest, putting more stress on his family-run business.

“Everything is just scary. And there’s so many things that we think we’ve figured out, when really, we don’t have any idea what’s going on,” Folz said. “Especially when a tweet comes out and drives prices down 10 or 15 percent, or a report comes out and drives corn prices down 10 percent,” he said. “You go from a profit margin to a substantial loss from numbers real quick.”

Two weeks ago Folz signed up for the second round of the Market Facilitation Program, a Trump administration effort to give a portion of $16 billion as direct trade relief payments to affected farmers.

Folz said he doesn’t want these payments. He doesn’t like government subsidies in general, and wants trade deals reached as soon as possible. “I wish it would settle today,” he said.

With no strong signals that Trump will reach a trade deal with China anytime soon, Folz said the relief payments keep farmers afloat in the meantime.

“If [Trump] doesn’t keep stepping up with these different little payments to help save us until it gets done, there’ll be a lot of farmers who won’t be in business in a couple of years if it lasts that long,” Folz said.

“Everything is just scary,” Folz says of the uncertainty around trade. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

He still backs the Trump administration’s efforts to negotiate new trade deals because he wants someone to stand up against unfair trade practices and make up for a trade deficit with China.

A recent Farm Journal survey showed a large majority of the country’s farmers still support Trump. Yet many regional farmers are also becoming weary of ongoing trade disputes, with some questioning the Trump administration’s tactics and ultimately whether they’ll support Trump’s reelection.

Varying Relief

In northeast Ohio, Ben Klick is just establishing his career in agriculture. The 24-year-old, closed on his first farm this year and grows crops including corn. He said he thinks farmers still trust Trump to follow through with trade deals.

“He’s done a lot for us. More than any recent president has done for a farmer in the past,” Klick said. “As long as he comes through on some of his trade promises, I think he’ll have no problem with our support.”

Klick thinks Trump is making progress on his trade promises to replace NAFTA with a new trade deal, called USMCA. That agreement with Mexico and Canada has not yet been ratified by Congress. But Klick also wishes Trump would be more careful with his words.

“I wish he would just quit saying he was close on something when he’s been saying that so many times now,” Klick said. “I’d rather him just say ‘Be patient, this takes time,’ instead of him saying ‘We’re close on something, we’re close.’ And you get your hopes up, but then nothing happens.”

The latest relief payments are being distributed to most crop farmers by acreage planted, depending on the farmer’s county of residence. U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said they based payments on a calculation of the amount of trade damage that farmers in each county are expected to face.

Credit: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

These payments vary widely. In the Ohio Valley, they range from as low as $15 an acre in some counties to as high as $124 an acre in Braxton County, West Virginia.

“I just found out today that I can get $124 dollars an acre for it. And I was floored,” John Meadows said. He’s a Braxton County farmer growing a 20-acre plot of corn, which, he admits, does not make him a major producer.

“It’s not like I have a billboard hanging out that you can fly over and see that says ‘Oh my god, look at that corn!’”

Meadows said he was surprised the relief payment rate was so high for him because there’s little crop production in Braxton County and central Appalachia, compared to other parts of the country. But he said he wasn’t turning down the payment.

Some analyses of the relief program indicate that farmers are being overcompensated.

Researchers at the University of Missouri Food & Agricultural Policy Institute argue in an analysis published in late July that the lost soybean markets from China were partially made up for by exports to other smaller countries. Soybeans prices still saw a modest decline, but not enough of a decline to justify the amount of payments.

Other critics have pointed to several large farms, including one in central Kentucky, which were able to collect in some cases over $1 million in the first round of payments. Ohio Valley farmers received $616,287,779 in payments from the first round of the Market Facilitation Program through the end of April, according to data obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group. Three-fourths of that total went to Ohio farmers, and twelve farms in Ohio and Kentucky received at least $500,000.

Davie Stephens, a far west Kentucky soybean farmer and president of the American Soybean Association, said those critiques don’t take into account the financial situation of every farm.

“You may have some farmers think it’s great and some say this isn’t near enough,” Stephens said. “So it goes back to financially how each individual farm is feeling this impact.”

Agricultural economists in the Ohio Valley also agree that the financial situation of farmers can vary. Ben Brown, Ohio State University Assistant Professor of Professional Practice in Agricultural Risk Management, said the payments might be slightly overcompensating, but that some farms still need the support.

“Maybe they’re a little bit higher than what they should have been,” Brown said. “This isn’t a long-term solution. I don’t think anybody in agriculture likes waiting to see if the government will make these trade aid payments.”

Brown said he expects there to be future rounds of relief payments to farmers if unresolved trade disputes continue into 2020.

Tom Folz grows thousands of acres of corn and soybean in western KY. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

Growing Weary 

Not all Ohio Valley farmers support the Trump administration’s tactics, even if those trade relief payments do continue.

Ohio Farmers Union President Joe Logan said his members generally still want to support Trump, but are questioning whether tariffs are the best path toward trade deals.

“They’re frustrated. They don’t see a favorable end in sight,” Logan said. “They still want to give Mr. Trump’s team a chance to succeed in this, but I would say their tolerance for further misery is becoming limited.”

John Meadows, the Braxton County farmer, said he wants politicians in Washington to put aside partisan differences to tackle issues like trade.

“The last several years, we’ve either been in the left ditch or the right ditch,” Meadows said. “We haven’t been going down the road with one or even two wheels on it. We’ve went clear off the road, left or right.”

He voted for Trump in 2016 but is unsure about whether to do so in 2020. He said like other farmers, he wants to see if Trump will ultimately follow through on his trade promises.

“I think most farmers would still vote for him today,” Meadows said. ”But I’m also aware that a lot of them are sitting on the fence and may be sitting on the fence until election day.”


Southern Farmers Reckon With Push to Raise Tobacco-Buying Age



Tobacco workers at Scott Family Farms International in Lucama, North Carolina, October 5, 2017. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has co-sponsored a bill to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21. USDA Photo by Preston Keres via flickr.

Where tobacco was once king, some farmers support an effort to raise the age for legal tobacco use from 18 to 21. Others worry the change could soften demand for the product and affect farmers, who are far fewer since the end of the federal tobacco program.

Burley tobacco once lined nearly every road in Shelby County, Kentucky. But when Paul Hornback drives through his hometown, the 62-year-old tobacco farmer rarely sees the leafy crop.

Despite his fears about tobacco farming, long the lifeblood of his community, Hornback supports the push to ban teenagers from buying cigarettes.

Last month, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who co-sponsored a bill to raise the purchasing age limit for traditional and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21, said the changes were “not a zero-sum choice” between health and agriculture. Hornback, who serves as a Republican state lawmaker in Kentucky, agrees.

“I believe public health can win — and farmers can win,” Hornback said. He thinks tobacco growers could diversify their crops, improving their long-term economic outlook, while seeing a potential improvement in teen health.

Faced with declining U.S. cigarette consumption, along with an increasingly competitive international market, tobacco farmers in states such as Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia are bracing for the potential impact of a federal Tobacco 21, or “T-21,” bill. Since the mid-2000s, more than a dozen states and nearly 500 cities have passed similar legislation. But it wasn’t until the past year that T-21 gained traction in Southern states including Arkansas, Virginia and Texas.

Large tobacco companies, once opposed to raising the minimum tobacco-buying age, now support state and federal T-21 legislation. That about-face has worried some activists, who fear industry lobbying efforts behind such laws are intended to gut stronger local tobacco regulations.

Beyond the U.S. Capitol and statehouses, however, Southern farmers are left to figure out what comes next. Some tobacco farmers wary of T-21 think the legislation is the latest threat to one of the region’s legacy crops. Others, like Hornback, voiced support for legislation designed to reduce teen smoking.

Tony Banks, a commodity-marketing specialist for the Virginia Farm Bureau, thinks it’s only a matter of time before T-21 passes on a federal level. But as the country moves closer to that point, agricultural experts worry that the public health initiative could force farmers to grow less tobacco or push them out of the business.

“T-21 is probably inevitable,” Banks said. “But it’s another step in the direction of hastening declines in cigarette consumption. And it’s another cut to [tobacco farmers’] production and income.”

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A Healthier Tobacco Country

Tobacco farmers helped drive the economies of Southern states for centuries. Two kinds of tobacco — burley and flue-cured — fueled U.S. export markets well into the 1970s.

But growing awareness from Americans of smoking’s link to cancer, along with the rise of international markets, sent domestic tobacco production in reverse.

Following the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, federal lawmakers passed a tobacco buyout as part of the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act in 2004.

It forced tobacco companies to pay billions of dollars to growers as part of the government’s deregulation of the industry and allowed some farmers to relinquish their tobacco production quotas.

The legislation was intended to help growers compete against international competitors. But China’s tariffs on American tobacco have in part offset those gains.

Despite Southern tobacco farmers’ economic presence across the region, they also have witnessed long-term health consequences. North Carolina, which produces more tobacco than any other state, ranks eighth in youth cigarette smoking rates. The second-highest tobacco producer, Kentucky, is nearly tied for the highest level of youth cigarette use.

Behind those states comes Virginia, which has lower smoking rates that mirror the national average, but has faced criticism from the American Lung Association for its inadequate policies for cessation funding and smoke-free air. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not have statewide data for 11 states.)

McConnell thinks his T-21 bill would help combat rising vaping rates among teens, while also addressing Kentucky’s nation-leading cancer rates. That’s a mission that tobacco farmers can rally behind — without feeling like they’re left behind, he said.

“I haven’t met a tobacco farmer yet who didn’t think this was a good idea,” McConnell said in a recent radio interview with WKYX. (His spokesperson did not make McConnell available for an interview with Stateline.) “Tobacco has been an important part of our culture. That doesn’t mean that people who grow tobacco think youngsters ought to use.”

While some public health advocates have aligned with Big Tobacco to advance hundreds of laws nationwide, other groups remain suspicious of those companies’ intentions. A recent investigation from the Center for Public Integrity found that tobacco lobbyists have funded a “blitzkrieg” in which hundreds of lobbyists have sought to advance state-level bills.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who co-sponsored the federal bill, thinks conservative tobacco farmers and progressive health activists can support T-21 to “keep tobacco products out of schools and away from our children.” Virginia is home to one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris Companies.

William Paterson University economics professor Rahi Abouk said his research on local T-21 laws nationwide has found only limited reductions in smoking rates. But in a recent op-ed in the Courier Journal, McConnell further pitched Kentuckians on the idea of T-21.

“When it comes to tobacco, Kentuckians acknowledge our past and the role the historic crop still plays for a number of farmers today,” McConnell wrote. “But we must also recognize the growing public health crisis of teenage vaping. Kentucky farmers don’t want their children developing unhealthy addictions any more than any other parent.”

‘Tobacco Is Still King’

Steve Pratt, the manager of a co-op with tobacco growers in five states, said he supports policies that keep kids away from cigarettes. But he doesn’t share the same rosy outlook as McConnell or Hornback, in part because such legislation would lower tobacco demand.

“Obviously, anything that’s going to cause people to stop smoking is going to cause a decline in demand for burley tobacco,” Pratt said. “From that perspective, it’s definitely not going to help the tobacco farming industry.”

Blake Brown, an economics professor at North Carolina State University’s cooperative extension, said T-21 marks the latest in a long line of threats that have chiseled into the once vibrant trade.

For decades, tobacco farmers have been hit by the confluence of a 3 percent annual drop in U.S. cigarette consumption and the rise of tobacco production in Brazil, China and Zimbabwe.

Most recently, President Donald Trump’s trade war has pummeled North Carolina tobacco farmers who have temporarily lost business with some of their biggest clients.

If McConnell’s bill is successful, “you’ll have fewer young people start smoking,” Brown said. “In the scheme of things — tariffs and other regulations — T-21 is fairly small. It might accelerate the trend of declined cigarette consumption.”

In February, Kentucky tobacco farmer and Republican state Sen. Stan Humphries pushed back against Kentucky’s state-level T-21 bill. During a Kentucky Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, a lawmaker proposed a bill that would have raised the smoking age to 21, arguing that Kentucky footed a $2 billion bill annually for tobacco-related sicknesses, and attendees offered a standing ovation.

But Humphries argued that the regulation posed a threat to the already-shrinking tobacco industry. The Republican-controlled committee voted against the bill. “Where I come from, tobacco is still king,” Humphries said.

But since 2004, the year of the tobacco buyout, Pratt estimates the number of burley tobacco farmers in the states he represents — Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and West Virginia — has dropped from 175,000 to 3,000.

Last year, burley tobacco farmers planned to grow the fewest acres on record, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because of that data, Pratt can’t see a silver lining for additional regulations like T-21.

“That’s not going to be a win-win for tobacco farmers,” Pratt said.

Uncertain Road Forward

As T-21 spreads across the country, many tobacco experts think it will further push tobacco farmers toward crop diversification.

Banks said Virginia tobacco farmers are growing more wheat, soybeans and industrial hemp. And farmers in eastern North Carolina have increasingly shifted toward a mix of sweet potatoes, hogs, poultry and tobacco. But Brown worries the move away from the profitable crop of tobacco means farmers will no longer have a strong safety net during harsher economic times.

“If nothing else was OK, tobacco would get them through it,” Brown said. “In east North Carolina, farmers now don’t talk about being a ‘tobacco farmer.’ They’re a farmer — an astute businessman — who grows a diverse mix.”

While Banks has concerns about the negative economic impact of Virginia’s T-21 — in Virginia and beyond — he fears that it’s a sign of things to come. Pending U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposals to lower addictive substances in cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products could create an “unfeasible” environment for tobacco growers, Banks said.

Having spent nearly all his life in tobacco, Hornback has accepted the inevitable shift. Tobacco once made up 60 percent of his business. Now it accounts for 15 percent.

At this point, he doesn’t just grow a larger variety of crops — he’s even taken on construction work, too. Despite the constant threat to tobacco growers, Hornback thinks tobacco farming will survive, even if it’s serving a niche market.

“Tobacco farmers have adapted and adjusted before,” Hornback said. “But tobacco is not going away.”

Stateline is an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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