WASHINGTON — Checks are starting to trickle out from the Trump administration program aimed at helping farmers hurt by the ongoing trade disruptions.
But many Iowa and Nebraska producers are waiting to see just how big those checks will be and how much they will offset their significant losses.
“What good is it really going to do? I’m not sure,” said Gary Langbein, who grows corn and soybeans in northwest Iowa and is waiting for a payment. “It might pay for my commercial storage and that’s it. It might not do anything for my bottom line except pay for the storage.”
Langbein uses his own storage for his corn crop and typically sells his soybeans right out of the field. But with soybean prices plummeting this year, he’s holding onto that harvest in the hope of a market rebound — meaning he has to pay to store it in the meantime.
To help ends meet, he’s taken a job performing light mechanical work at a car dealership in nearby Sac City.
“Once the tariffs kind of took over, the markets just fell out of bed,” Langbein said. “So, yeah, it’s not good.”
Trade disruptions have hit the farm sector hard, particularly crops such as soybeans that are highly dependent on robust purchases by China.
Administration officials have insisted that the short-term pain will be worth it in the end, with everyone coming out ahead after they’ve negotiated better trade deals.
In the interim, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has dusted off Depression-era authorities to implement a $12 billion package to mitigate the damage to farmers.
Their approach includes direct payments to eligible producers as well as government purchases of surplus commodities that are then used in nutrition assistance programs.
Langbein applied for one of those soybean payments and expects to see his first check in the next week.
“The payments might be really substantial, they might just cover my costs of storage,” Langbein said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what to do.”
Nebraskan Keith Dittrich is also waiting to see what comes from his farm’s application. His operation includes partially irrigated acres of corn and soybeans near Tilden, Nebraska.
“We’re taking a heck of a hit on soybeans right now,” Dittrich said.
Dittrich said the trade fight came at the same time that record production was increasing stockpiles. Farmers need expanding markets to deal with those stockpiles but have instead seen the opposite.
“If we don’t rectify the situation very soon, we are doing very long-term damage to our market,” Dittrich said.
He’s hoping the USDA payments will cover more than half the losses his farm has incurred thus far, but he’s also anticipating that the market will continue to drop.
“We haven’t seen the bottom of soybean prices yet,” Dittrich said. “Our forecasters are telling us ‘watch out.’ ”
He may not be a Trump supporter, but he acknowledged that much of rural America seems to be sticking with the president for now.
“Most of the farmers voted for Trump,” Dittrich said. “I guess they’re just going to have to eat their damn soybeans. They should have anticipated that this administration did not have a coherent trade policy.”
Farmers say they would much prefer to sell their products than take the government payments, but under the circumstances, they are accepting the help offered.
Al Juhnke, executive director of the Nebraska Pork Producers Association, said his producers have been applying for and receiving checks through the USDA program.
“From what I can tell, it’s going smoothly from our end,” Juhnke said.
Still, the bigger help for the pork sector, he said, is likely to be the program’s government purchase of pork products — about $550 million worth.
“That large of a purchase will indeed affect the prices in the market and give us a boost,” Juhnke said.
One wild card is a bout of African swine fever affecting China’s domestic pork industry. That could further depress soybean prices, as it means less demand for that crop.
But Juhnke suggested that a shortage of domestic pork supplies also could help move China to make a deal.
Trump officials say talks are ongoing. President Trump and Chinese leaders are expected to have discussions at the upcoming G-20 meeting in Argentina.
Langbein said frustration with the situation is likely to grow as farmers continue to sit on crops without robust markets for selling them.
“This politics is over my head. I just plant and grow and hope you get a good price at the end of the year,” Langbein said. “And this year it’s not happening.”