Farm­ers pun­ished by floods and Trump’s trade war

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY CRYS­TAL THOMAS AND BRYAN LOWRY [email protected]­star.com [email protected]­clatchydc.com

The two grain bins on Bruce Bier­man’s farm near Corn­ing, Mis­souri, could not with­stand the strong cur­rents of the Mis­souri River.

With four feet of water press­ing from the out­side and grain swelling from mois­ture in­side, the bins burst.

At 71, Bier­man is look­ing at more than a $100,000 loss. And he’s not “in this boat alone” – a bit of hu­mor that helps keep him afloat in a very trou­bling time.

Like many farm­ers in the Mis­souri River basin, Bier­man had been hold­ing on to crops for bet­ter prices af­ter years of de­pressed mar­kets. In his case, 8,200 bushels of soy­beans and 12,000 bushels of corn.

Farm­ers were al­ready grap­pling with the fi­nan­cial strain from low prices, a consequence of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sion to es­ca­late a trade fight with China and other ma­jor trad­ing part­ners.

Then, the flood hap­pened.

Now, farm­ers like Bier­man have lit­tle re­course for re­coup­ing their losses through the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. The U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s $3 bil­lion Wild­fires and Hur­ri­canes In­dem­nity Pro­gram doesn’t cover crops that have been stored, some­thing Mid­west law­mak­ers are scram­bling to change.

“It seems like the hand that’s feed­ing the world is get­ting bit,” Bier­man said. “Farm­ers can only hang on for so long.”

As farm­ers fol­low the fall­out from Trump’s trade war, they are also anx­iously await­ing Congress to take ac­tion to help them re­cover from the flood­ing. A par­ti­san stand­off over aid to Puerto Rico could pro­long their wait, but law­mak­ers from the Mid­west are push­ing their col­leagues to move quickly to ad­dress the grow­ing cri­sis in the heart­land.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mis­souri, who toured the dam­aged north­west Mis­souri farms in his dis­trict last month, said tar­iffs and the floods have com­bined to cre­ate one dis­as­ter, which farm­ers are strug­gling to sur­vive.

“Many of the farm­ers feel as though they’re get­ting hit twice and the gov­ern­ment is look­ing the other way,” Cleaver said.

HOLD­ING ON TO GRAIN

A na­tional glut of crops and a dearth of in­ter­na­tional buy­ers have caused prices to drop. In re­sponse, farm­ers are stor­ing more than they nor­mally do, ac­cord­ing to Pat Westhoff, the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­souri Food and Agri­cul­tural Pol­icy Re­search In­sti­tute direc­tor.

As of March 1, farm­ers had stored 2.72 bil­lion bushels of soy­beans na­tion­wide, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture, a 29 per­cent in­crease over the same date last year.

The trade fight has played a role in those plum­met­ing prices, Westhoff said.

To off­set the dif­fer­ence, the USDA has of­fered $8 bil­lion in pay­outs to farm­ers so far. How­ever, the pay­outs didn’t cover a farmer’s en­tire un­sold yield, Westhoff said. For ex­am­ple, soy­bean farm­ers got $1.65 per bushel when $9 per bushel is of­ten a break-even price.

Rick Oswald, a fifth­gen­er­a­tion grain farmer with about 2,000 acres in Atchi­son County, Mis­souri, sold his soy­beans at a loss of $8.70 per bushel.

He doesn’t ex­pect prices to get bet­ter.

“I ended up tak­ing less than ($9 a bushel) for them be­cause I couldn’t see any­thing chang­ing with trade, with the dis­putes with China,” Oswald said. “One rea­son that wasn’t go­ing to change? Once China stopped buy­ing, we started build­ing a soy­bean sur­plus and we were look­ing at a bil­lion bushel sur­plus.”

Oswald, a mem­ber of the Mis­souri Farm­ers Union and a Demo­crat, is crit­i­cal of Pres­i­dent Trump, who he said “came in and up­set the ap­ple cart,” af­ter farm­ers in­vested years and many of their dol­lars to es­tab­lish new mar­kets.

“You have this gov­ern­ment come in and start to stir the pot,” Oswald said. “We have come in and stressed over and over, year af­ter year, we need steady, re­li­able mar­kets. Once you lose the op­por­tu­nity to sell some­thing you grew, it’s just go­ing to stay on the farm. Just like a bil­lion bushels of un­sold soy­beans.”

Oswald said he knows he’s an out­lier among his neigh­bors in crit­i­ciz­ing Trump, who won Mis­souri and Kansas by dou­ble dig­its in 2016 with huge sup­port in ru­ral ar­eas.

It’s not a par­ti­san is­sue, Oswald said. He was crit­i­cal of the farm poli­cies of Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter, a farmer and a Demo­crat, too.

“As farm­ers we have to stand up for our­selves and I don’t think it does any good to de­fend some­one that has been re­ally detri­men­tal to us,” Oswald said.

Though he was able to off­load his soy­beans, Oswald lost all the corn he had stored on his farm near Lang­don in Atchi­son County, Mis­souri, be­cause of un­drive­able roads left by bad weather.

Like sev­eral farm­ers, Oswald had lit­tle no­tice to move the grain. Even then, he thought with his farm pro­tected by a fed­eral levy he would be spared. Much of Oswald’s anger has been di­rected at the Army Corps of En­gi­neers, which has come un­der scru­tiny by fed­eral and state law­mak­ers, alike, for its river man­age­ment.

“I have four big wet piles of corn that are lay­ing in a mass of bro­ken gal­va­nized steel and it’s wet and it’s be­com­ing spring and that’s all go­ing to start to grow,” Oswald said. “It’s go­ing to look for hu­mon­gous mounds of grow­ing corn.”

With­out tak­ing into ac­count the de­struc­tion of the bins, it’s a $ 70,000 loss, he said.

“I don’t think I will get any­thing out of that at all ex­cept for maybe a bill for a bull­dozer to push it out of the way,” Oswald said.

Travis Green, 33, who op­er­ates farms in both Kansas and Nebraska, stored 25,000 bushels of yel­low corn in a pair of grain bins in White Cloud, Kansas, near the Mis­souri River.

One of the bins “lit­er­ally just blasted open,” af­ter it filled with flood­wa­ter and the other was up­rooted – de­stroy­ing an es­ti­mated $100,000 worth of corn. On top of that, he’s un­sure whether he’ll be able to plant any­thing this year be­cause of the water dam­age.

‘‘ IT SEEMS LIKE THE HAND THAT’S FEED­ING THE WORLD IS GET­TING BIT. FARM­ERS CAN ONLY HANG ON FOR SO LONG.

Bruce Bier­man

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