Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Kamala Harris' claim of soybeans 'rotting in bins' doesn't smell right

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., greets supporters Oct. 23, 2018, at a rally for Democratic Party candidates at Old Brick in Iowa City. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., greets supporters Oct. 23, 2018, at a rally for Democratic Party candidates at Old Brick in Iowa City. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Does the veracity of the Harris claim pass our fact checker team’s smell test? Follow your nose to our conclusion.

Introduction

“He (President Donald Trump) engages in trade policy by tweet ... that has resulted in our farmers here in Iowa looking at bankruptcy because, of course, over decades they did the hard work of building up a market to sell soybeans to China and now they are looking at soybeans rotting in bins and looking at bankruptcy.”

Source of claim

California Sen. Kamala Harris made this statement Sept. 23 at the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry in Des Moines.

Analysis

Harris’ statement about “soybeans rotting in bins” has been part of her stump speech for months. She said it in a June interview with Iowa Public Radio’s Clay Masters and National Public Radio’s Scott Detrow and in a July interview with KCCI-TV in Des Moines. Harris also tweeted the phrase July 31, getting more than 480 retweets since.

But is it true?

The Fact Checker is primarily checking the “rotting in bins” claim because it’s sensational and Harris has repeated it so many times. To get there, though, we’re going to talk about how U.S. trade policy has affected grain storage.

The Harris campaign sent the Fact Checker links to two articles, one by Business Insider with the headline “Crops are rotting in fields as Trump’s trade war bites US farmers” and the other from Reuters saying “U.S. farmers face devastation following Midwest floods.”

The first article links to another Reuters story that includes an interview with a Louisiana farmer who said he plowed under 1,000 acres of weather-damaged soybeans because he didn’t think he could sell them for a profit.

Overall, these news stories provide anecdotal stories from farmers who believe the Trump administration’s trade policies have hurt the markets for soybeans. Other sources, too, say this is accurate.

The United States has been in a trade war with China since March 2018, when the Trump administration announced aluminum and steel tariffs. China soon retaliated with tariffs on pork and soybeans, among other U.S. goods.

A timeline by the University of Illinois Department of Agriculture and Consumer Science shows the price of soybeans falling from about $10 per bushel in May 2018 to $7.75 in July 2018 as tariffs were imposed. Bean prices have rebounded only slightly since, with state average prices at about $8.50 this week, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Daily Grain Report for Oct. 17.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“In the short-run, retaliatory tariffs contributed to declining prices for certain U.S. agricultural commodities and reduced exports, particularly for soybeans,” the Congressional Research Service reported in September.

In August 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted a record soybean harvest for fall 2018. Ordinarily, this would be good news, but because of lower demand from China, many farmers decided to store their beans in hopes of a rebound in prices.

“Nationwide, 913 million bushels of grain were in storage as of Sept. 1, 2019,” said Charles Hurburgh, an Iowa State University professor whose specialty is in grain drying and storage. Iowa’s share of that was 159 million bushels, Hurburgh said, referring to USDA data.

The national carry-over was up from about 513 million bushels of grain carried over from 2017 to 2018.

But just because farmers chose to put grain in storage doesn’t mean they couldn’t sell it.

“There is no such thing as no market,” Hurburgh said. “It’s just that you don’t like the price.”

And just because soybeans are stored in silos or bins doesn’t mean they are rotting, as Harris claimed.

“The statement about rotting in bins is not true,” Hurburgh said.

Modern grain storage bins include fans and other aeration equipment to help keep grains cool and dry, which slows deterioration, he added. Hurburgh said soybeans can be stored for up to two years without significant loss of quality.

Conclusion

Harris’ repeated statement about “soybeans rotting in bins” seems like an amalgamation of several news reports, one talking about crops “rotting in fields” and others reporting on soybeans being stored instead of sold.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

She’s right farmers in Iowa and across the nation put a record amount of soybeans into silos and bins last fall due to falling prices caused by the trade dispute. Back-and-forth tariffs haven’t been good for farmers.

But Harris went too far when she said the stored beans were rotting, which implies farmers lost all their income and wasted their labor because of the Trump administration.

Someone outside the agriculture industry likely doesn’t know how fast soybeans decompose in modern storage silos. Which is why Harris should have done more research before making the “rotting in bins” claim so many times.

We give her a D.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan of The Gazette.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Want to join the conversation?

Consider subscribing to TheGazette.com and participate in discussing the important issues to our community with other Gazette subscribers.

Already a Gazette or TheGazette.com subscriber? Just login here with your account email and password.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.