Farmers punished by floods and Trump’s trade war
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.