Government

Trade policies hurting farmers, rural America, Eastern Iowa farmers tell Congress

About 2,400 pigs, 11 weeks old, walk around in a building at a finishing site for Brenneman Pork in Washington on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
About 2,400 pigs, 11 weeks old, walk around in a building at a finishing site for Brenneman Pork in Washington on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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Eastern Iowa farmers presented members of Congress with a grim picture of the effects of the Trump administration’s trade policies on the future of their operations.

“Going forward — with inputs staying high, prices staying low and no end to the trade war with China in sight — things do not look great on my farm,” Tama County pork producer Rebecca Dostal told the U.S. House Rural Development, Agriculture, Trade and Entrepreneurship subcommittee Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Dostal and Mark Meirick, a Howard County pork producer and feed-and-seed business owner, testified before the subcommittee chaired by Iowa U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer.

“Trade is vital to the success of U.S. pork producers,” Meirick said in his five-minute presentation to the seven-member panel. However, tariffs on pork exports to China and Mexico, a lack of progress on free trade agreements with Japan and other pork-consuming nations, uncertainty about the ratification of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, “and growing competition from other pork-producing nations have pig farmers like me more than a little worried,” Meirick said.

Finkenauer said she called the hearing because in recent years she’s seen firsthand that “retaliation from current trade wars have caused unease, uncertainty and economic losses across the Heartland.”

The sustained success of farmers and small businesses “is critical for communities in Iowa and the rest of the country,” she said. “We must ensure we have trade policy that helps us export goods, but also protects our workers, our communities and production.”

Meirick said he was speaking for 60,000 American pork producers who provide 26 billion pounds of pork to consumers worldwide. Exports add to farmers’ bottom lines and support 110,000 jobs in pork and allied industries.

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In 2018, pork exports were valued at more than $6 billion, representing more than 25 percent of U.S. pork production.

Now, U.S. pork has the “dubious distinction” of being on three retaliation lists — two with China and one with Mexico, Meirick said. China’s previous 12 percent tariff on U.S. pork has grown to 62 percent and Mexico, which had no import tariff under the North American Free Trade Agreement, now imposes a 20 percent duty, he said.

“The bottom line is that U.S. pork is shouldering a disproportionate share of trade retaliation,” Meirick said. “My fellow producers and I need relief.”

But the relief farmers need isn’t financial assistance, Dostal said.

“We don’t want a hand out,” she said. “That’s not what we’re here for.”

She received “trade aid” payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that covered some losses, “but not nearly all of it,” Dostal said. The price of soybeans has fallen below the cost of production, and corn prices are hovering around the break-even point.

“While we appreciate the assistance, we would much rather be paid a fair price by the market than restitution by the government,” she said.

Many farmers were unable to repay operating loans after the 20128 harvest, and bankers are nervous, Dostal and Meirick said.

Dostal, who is also a substitute teacher, said she sees firsthand the effect the farm economy has on rural communities and schools.

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“We are losing rural population, our towns are shrinking, and our community is slowly dying,” she said. “If you are a small farmer like me and can’t make a living in agriculture you have no option but to leave.”

There is an easy solution, Dostal said. The U.S. needs to negotiate free-trade agreements with Japan and the European Union and re-enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“A trade deal with China that is fair and predictable would expand our markets, help American farmers and sustain our rural communities,” she said. “Protectionist trade does not help Americans. It only hurts us in the Heartland.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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