I recently stopped by a country store in Harnett County and listened to a group of farmers discuss the stress and hardship brought on by President Donald Trump’s trade wars with China.
One farmer described “taking a load of tobacco to market and finding no buyers.” This farmer elaborated. “I took it back home because China is no longer buying American tobacco. It took us 20 years to get China to buy our tobacco and now Trump has closed that market.”
President Trump’s trade war with China is serving up a buffet of bad economic choices for Tar Heel farmers. In the past year, the president has started and escalated his trade wars with China and other countries by raising tariffs which predictably have triggered a hostile climate for markets. Tariffs do not serve to expand the marketplace. They shrink them.
And it appears to be getting worse as China plays its tit-for-tat game with Trump on tariffs. Left in the lurch are farmers in North Carolina and across the nation whose markets for tobacco, corn, soybeans, pork and other products disappear.
The effects on rural communities are already clear. Farmers are feeling the decline. And it won’t be long before consumers start to share the pain in their grocery bills. This is all sadly predictable and not a surprise.
Dear Mr. President: Your trade war with China is not working. It is becoming increasingly clear that escalating trade wars with China and other nations are costing American taxpayers and bankrupting farmers.
Usually the harvest season is a time for optimism for farmers. The hard work and planning for the planting season blossom into mature crop yields that eventually bring food to our local grocery stores and income for the family farmer to pay this year’s bills and have a few dollars left over to start next year.
But this year? Many N.C. farmers won’t realize those kind of profits. Some are worried about simple survival. Most people don’t consider that farmers count on last year’s harvest yield to fund this year’s operations. Because of Trump’s tariffs, the current market price of stored commodities may not even cover the cost of this year’s planting season.
When early prices are depressed, you don’t have the freedom to think about long term needs like replacing equipment. Uncertainty causes you to plan differently for the year ahead, and the reality is that you may not have money to pay your current bills. When bills don’t get paid, the entire rural economy begins to slow down. When that happens, rural communities that count on agriculture feel the pain of a trade war harder and faster than urban areas.
The president said that trade wars are easy to win, but our competitors have figured out how to fight back. They simply stopped buying from us and are buying from other nations. And once you lose a customer, it is hard to get them back.
Hopes that farmers have for a return on their labor are going up in flames as President Trump’s fiery rhetoric and reckless trade war are burning farm communities and family farms. Trump is akin to an arsonist who lights a blaze and then rides on the fire truck with lights and sirens blaring to claim credit for putting out the blaze and rescuing the rural economy. But when there is a fire, something gets burned. Right now, rural America is feeling major heat, and some farmers are getting torched.
The American people are already paying for President Trump’s golf trips to Mar-a-Lago. I don’t think they want to pay for his ego trips on raising tariffs, too. Trump either doesn’t get it, doesn’t care or doesn’t mind using farmers and rural communities as pawns in his trade war with China. At the end of the day, we are all in this together. I don’t think the President understands that.
Bob Etheridge is a former U.S. congressman. He represented North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district from 1997 to 2011. He formerly served as the executive director of the North Carolina office of the U.S. Farm Service Agency. He lives in Harnett County.