WASHINGTON – Minnesota’s 2018 soybean crop lost $152 million in value in the commodities futures market hours after China threatened Wednesday to place a 25 percent tariff on soybeans imported from the United States.
Commodity futures are in constant flux, the state’s soybean farmers know. But they also see a serious threat should actions ever replace words.
“If the futures price drops 40 cents a bushel on talk, what’s it going to do if this really happens?” asked Bill Gordon, who grows 1,000 acres of soybeans a year on his farm near Worthington.
As the U.S. and China move closer to a trade war, no one involved with Minnesota’s leading agricultural export wants to find out.
“Soybeans are the big dog in the room,” University of Minnesota grain market economist Ed Usset explained. “China will import more soybeans this year than our entire country produced four years ago.”
Minnesota is the nation’s third largest producer of soybeans. The crop accounts for 30 percent of the state’s agricultural exports. The state shipped more than $2 billion worth of soybeans abroad in 2016. More than half went to China.
There are other Minnesota-made products on China’s newly announced list of U.S. products that face 25 percent tariffs in retaliation for President Donald Trump’s plan to place punitive taxes on 1,300 kinds of Chinese imports to America. But none put the state’s economy at more risk than a punitive levy on a little yellow protein-rich bean.
There is still time to negotiate. U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports will not take effect until after a public comment period and a public hearing on May 15. After that it could be weeks before final U.S. rules are rendered. China has not said when it will apply its tariffs to U.S. products.
But the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association is so upset that it issued a statement Wednesday “calling on the White House to reconsider the tariffs that led to this retaliation.”
Minnesota-based Cargill urged both countries to “get to the negotiating table to constructively address their concerns with each other in a time-bound manner.”
“The impact of trade conflict between the world’s two largest economies could lead to a destructive trade war with serious consequences for economic growth and job creation,” Cargill said.
Four state legislators — Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake; Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake; Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne; and Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck — who lead the agriculture committees in St. Paul issued a joint statement, warning that “foreign tariffs on products like soybeans and pork could be devastating to farmers already struggling with low commodity prices, and threaten Minnesota families, jobs, exports, and our economy.”
On Minnesota’s Iron Range, tariffs are not necessarily a bad word. Mayor Bob Vlaisavljevich of Eveleth is happy that Trump is finally getting tough with countries that he says have not treated the U.S. fairly.
“There was a lot of dumping, and no one’s done anything,” said Vlaisavljevich, whose community lost mining jobs with rising U.S. imports of foreign-made steel. The mayor looks to Trump’s new tariffs on imported steel to economically revive the Iron Range.
Vlaisavljevich does not expect tariffs on other products to be applied as currently proposed by the U.S. or its trading partners. Trump, he said, “knows that’s the way you get people to the table [to bargain].”
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, says what might end the standoff is the realization that in a trade battle over soybeans, neither side can win.
Bob Worth, a 65-year-old soybean farmer in Lake Benton, lived through a trade battle that became more than a war of words when President Jimmy Carter took on the Russians in the late 1970s. “That hurt us significantly,” Worth said. “We lost exports and the value of commodities fell.”
It took years for Worth’s farm to recover.
That is why he and other Minnesota soybean farmers hope Trump’s demonization of China for unfair trade practices and the president’s announcement of punitive tariffs that have yet to take effect are actually ploys to leverage a bilateral trade deal.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., said, “China’s intellectual property theft and other unfair trade practices are a major problem. I believe that we need to ensure that China plays by the rules and abides by its international commitments.”
Smith added in a statement. “It’s important to remember that these tariffs won’t be implemented for a few months so we still have time ... I recognize the real concerns among some of our producers in the state, including from soybean and wheat producers.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in a statement: “China must come to the table and negotiate with the U.S. instead of retaliating.”
Seth Naeve, a University of Minnesota Extension soybean agronomist, noted that “the margins on these commodities are so small that there’s no possible way that anybody along the market chain is going to be able to accept a 25 percent increase in their cost.”
Naeve visited China three weeks ago. Even then, he said, Chinese buyers were increasing their purchases of Brazilian soybeans on the futures market to avoid risk.
“These currently are threats, but the reality is the market has already reacted to it,” said Naeve.
If the threats turn into actual tariffs, Naeve said “crazy things” will begin to happen.
“The beans will end up going somewhere,” Naeve added, “but the more we have to shuffle around and swap and do more logistics and transloading and shipping, every one of those things just bites into the price and nibbles away 5 and 10 and 20 and 50 cents a bushel here and there.”
For people such as Mike Petefish, dragging agricultural commodities — especially soybeans — into a trade war makes no sense. The 33-year-old president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association farms 5,000 acres of soybeans and corn with his father and his wife.
“Ag is one of the few areas where we have a trade surplus,” Petefish said. “Exporting more soybeans would seem to be an answer.”
Instead, the president’s trade policy has put at risk the very voters who delivered him to the White House.
“Trump,” said Petefish, “has to know that most of his base lies in rural America.”