KEOTA — The first email came in at 3:15 a.m.
CNBC Singapore wanted to set up an interview. The media requests have continued, including one from The Gazette closer to home, asking John Heisdorffer, a Keota farmer, to talk about what it’s like to be president of the American Soybean Association as the industry has been roped into a possible trade war between the United States and China.
“I don’t remember anything being this important to soybean farmers,” said Heisdorffer, 66, who served on the board of the Iowa Soybean Association for 20 years before joining the national board eight years ago. “It’s going to be a wake-up call for farmers because it’s going to cut into their incomes that are already down significantly over the past five years.”
This was April 4, when China proposed a 25 percent tariff on soybeans imported from the United States. Soybeans are one of more than 100 American products worth $50 billion that would be covered under the plan, which was threatened retaliation for a similarly-sized tariff President Donald Trump announced days earlier on Chinese goods.
China is the world’s largest importer of soybeans, buying about $12 billion in U.S. soybeans last year, according to Reuters. As the second-largest soybean producing state with 561 billion bushels last year, Iowa farmers grow a lot of those soybeans going to China.
Heisdorffer fears China, facing steep tariffs on American beans, will start buying from competitors, such as Brazil. Winning that market back from rivals could take a generation, he said.
Heisdorffer started farming right out of high school, working land rented by relatives. With his son, Chris Heisdorffer, he now farms about 1,000 acres that includes corn and soybeans. They also finish about 10,000 hogs a year.
“I’m going to put in my 47th crop this spring,” John Heisdorffer said. “As soon as we can get this ground temperature up.”
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When Heisdorffer became vice president of the American Soybean Association in 2016, he was told to expect to be away from the farm about 100 days a year as he worked through the three-year leadership cycle of vice president, president and chairman. True to that, he’s been gone 33 days through the end of March.
“Things have been too busy since then,” he said with a laugh.
There are five Iowans on the 50-person board.
The national soybean association has been advocating for American farmers by writing letters and news releases describing how much tariffs on soybeans could hurt the industry long term. It also works with other commodity groups to pen joint messages indicating farmers of all products oppose any barrier to sales abroad, Heisdorffer said.
There is a 30-day comment period for Trump’s proposed levies on Chinese goods and China hasn’t announced a start date for its retaliatory tariffs, national news outlets reported.
“We’ve requested a meeting with the president on soybeans because China has said all along they would retaliate on soybeans,” Heisdorffer said.
As of the first week in April, President Donald Trump had not responded, Heisdorffer said.
The developing threat of a trade war with China likely won’t change farmers’ plans for spring planting because decisions about how much to plant usually are made far in advance, he said.
Heisdorffer hopes Iowa farmers already have contracts to sell some of their 2018 crop at set prices, which would lessen the overall impact of possible tariffs.
A Trump administration investigation, Rueters and others reported, found deeply entrenched theft of U.S. intellectual property and forced technology transfer from U.S. companies to Chinese competitors. But trade experts have asked the United States to talk with China about those concerns rather than escalate a trade war.
Heisdorffer agrees with that strategy.
“You always hope there are negotiations that change all that,” he said.
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