The Iowa farm­ers fear­ing for their liveli­hoods as China trade war looms

The Sunday Telegraph - - World news - By Nick Allen in Maxwell, Iowa and Neil Con­nor in Bei­jing

At the Kim­ber­ley fam­ily farm in ru­ral Iowa, the win­ter frost has lifted and the next few weeks will bring soy­bean plant­ing sea­son. “One in ev­ery three rows of beans goes to China,” said Grant Kim­ber­ley, watch­ing a com­bine har­vester spray­ing fer­tiliser across a vast field. But Mr Kim­ber­ley, 42, whose an­ces­tors have tilled the soil here since the 1860s, didn’t look con­fi­dent those ex­ports would con­tinue.

A po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing trade war looms and US soy­beans head­ing to China could face a 25 per cent tar­iff. The pro­posed charge hangs like a sword of Damo­cles over Iowa, a state big­ger than Eng­land and known as the “bread­bas­ket of Amer­ica”.

Forty per cent of China’s soy­beans – $14bil­lion worth a year – come from the US, and much of that from Iowa. The state is now awash with pre­dic­tions of eco­nomic doom, and anger at Don­ald Trump for trig­ger­ing the cri­sis by putting tar­iffs on Chi­nese steel.

Nowhere would a pro­longed trade war bring more dis­ap­point­ment than at the 4,000-acre Kim­ber­ley farm, which has in some sense be­come a fo­cal point for Sino-US trade relations.

In 2012, Xi Jin­ping, who was China’s vice-pres­i­dent at the time and is now the pres­i­dent, vis­ited the Kim­ber­leys – Grant, his fa­ther, Rick, and mother Martha – dur­ing a tour of the US. He liked the place so much that a replica “friend­ship farm”, in­clud­ing a copy of the Kim­ber­leys’ house, is be­ing built in China’s He­bei prov­ince.

Mr Xi’s con­nec­tion to Iowa goes back to 1985 when, as a party of­fi­cial, he spent two weeks in the state, re­search­ing farm­ing and lodg­ing with an Iowan fam­ily. That was his first visit to the US and, ac­cord­ing to those who have spo­ken to him, he re­tains a deep fond­ness for the state.

Sadly for Iowa, that also means Mr Xi knows its eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal im­por­tance. In ad­di­tion to be­ing an agri­cul­tural pow­er­house, the state holds a spe­cial place in the elec­toral cal­en­dar, vot­ing first in pri­mary elec­tions. In the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Mr Trump won with 51 per cent of the vote, largely be­cause farm­ers rallied be­hind him.

“The Chi­nese know the Mid­west is im­por­tant to Trump,” said Mr Kim­ber­ley. “They’re com­mu­nist but they know demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal prob­lems.”

He added: “We had been hop­ing agri­cul­ture would be left out of all this, that it wouldn’t be used as a weapon. I don’t be­lieve [Mr Xi] does want tar­iffs, but he will pro­tect his coun­try.”

If a trade war lasted un­til 2020, send­ing many Iowan farm­ers out of business, they would make their dis­plea­sure known at the bal­lot box. Sooner, they could aban­don Repub­li­cans in Novem­ber’s midterm con­gres­sional elec­tions.

While the rest of the world’s at­ten­tion was fo­cused on Syria, Mr Trump and his agri­cul­ture sec­re­tary, Sonny Pur­due, spent Thurs­day con­duct­ing a rear­guard ac­tion at the White House, hud­dling with Repub­li­can politi­cians from farm­ing states. Iowa’s Repub­li­can gov­er­nor, Kim Reynolds, told him tar­iffs would be “dev­as­tat­ing”.

Mr Trump said he “loved farm­ers” but they would have to take a hit as he tack­led the over­all $375bil­lion US trade deficit with China. “We’ll make it up to them,” he promised.

Stud­ies have sug­gested China’s pro­posed tar­iffs would re­duce US soy­bean ex­ports to China by 71 per cent. The gap would be filled by South Amer­i­can sup­pli­ers, and Iowa farm­ers are mon­i­tor­ing weather fore­casts in Brazil and Ar­gentina.

Mean­while, Iowa’s pig farm­ers have been hit by a Chi­nese tar­iff that has al­ready come into ef­fect: a 25 per cent levy on pork. The price of an av­er­a­ge­sized pig is down from $170 two weeks ago to $125 now.

As he pre­pared for plant­ing, Mr Kim­ber­ley, was de­ter­mined to re­main op­ti­mistic. He was stick­ing with plant­ing soy­beans rather than chang­ing to an­other crop like corn, as some Iowa farm­ers are con­sid­er­ing. And he was con­fi­dent Mr Xi and Mr Trump could reach a deal.

“I think Pres­i­dent Xi un­der­stands how im­por­tant trade is to his coun­try,” he said. “Long term, it’s in their best in­ter­ests to re­solve this as well.

“Af­ter Brexit I hope we get a free-trade agree­ment with you guys in the UK. That might help a bit.”

Grant Kim­ber­ley does not plan to change his fo­cus to corn

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