When people in rural Kansas talk to me about a farm crisis or economic depression, they unfortunately aren’t talking about the dust bowl of the 1930s or farm credit crisis of the 1980s – they’re talking about the ongoing crisis in farm country today where low commodity prices and severe drought have pushed many agricultural producers to the edge of an economic cliff. America’s trade relationships are, now more than ever, tied to the success of rural America, and we must make certain we negotiate responsibly so that our farmers and ranchers can continue to make a living by feeding and clothing the world.
Farm commodity prices have hovered at or below the cost of production for nearly half a decade, wiping out farmers’ savings and forcing many producers to take on more debt to keep family operations alive. Each morning, my office posts daily commodity prices from across Kansas for visitors to see, such as the price of wheat in Colby and price of soybeans in Hiawatha. The prices show what farmers receive per bushel of grain at the local elevator, but they also reflect the financial lifeblood of these towns and the thousands of rural communities across the country that are suffering due to the current farm disaster. These commodity prices are often a topic of conversation between visitors to my office, and more often than not, these Kansans have personally felt – or know someone who has – the strain of this recession.
In addition to alarmingly low prices, we’ve received little to no rain across much of the high plains for months. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated 24 Kansas counties as primary natural disaster areas so far due to severe drought conditions – and I’m working with my colleagues to extend and expand these designations as conditions don’t seem to be improving. While above-average yields the past several years have helped farmers and ranchers survive low commodity prices, I fear low prices, plus a drought, may be more than many producers can withstand.
Recently I was in Kensington, Kan., when I drove past such a large grain pile on the ground waiting for mouths to feed that I was compelled to pull over and take a photo. I’ve kept the photo with me ever since and have used it as a visual reminder of the reality our Kansas farmers face. In meetings with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, USTR representatives and numerous Kansas farmers, the reaction has been the same: How do we fix this?
First and foremost, we must have a solid path toward an end result in our trade negotiations with China. We cannot escalate a fight between a significant purchaser of what we produce in Kansas with no real end goal. My hope is that this is a negotiating tactic, but the efforts we see now suggest more than that, as they keep being ramped up by both countries: the United States imposes tariffs, China responds. The United States imposes tariffs, China responds. Then United States responds to that, and so on. In addition, we ought not forget about recent ill-advised tariffs on solar cells, washing machines and steel and aluminum that have resulted in our farmers and ranchers – through no fault of their own – being caught in the middle of an escalating trade dispute with China and other global trading partners.
Frustratingly, the administration continues to push trade policies that threaten to further drive down farm prices and extend the recession in rural America into the foreseeable future. For example, TPP negotiations has put American agricultural exports at a disadvantage to foreign competitors, and contentious NAFTA renegotiations with Canada and Mexico, which alternate between being the number one market for agricultural products in Kansas, are no closer to being resolved. Our economy in Kansas is dependent on the ability of our farmers, ranchers and manufacturers to trade their products.
In 2016, Kansas exported more than $4.5 billion worth of agricultural products, which supported more than 36,000 jobs and generated more than $5.7 billion in economic activity, making these negotiations all the more important.
The responsibility to respond to the farm disaster falls to both the administration and Congress.
First, we ought to stop self-inflicting wounds on trade. Tough enforcement of trade rules is a good idea, especially when it comes to dealing with China, but a trade war is not. Instead, the president ought to build off his success from last year in negotiating access for American beef to China by directing his administration to aggressively pursue bilateral trade agreements and other opportunities to expand agricultural exports.
For Congress, passing a new farm bill that strengthens the farm safety net, protects crop insurance and invests in trade promotion programs must be on top of the to-do list. Agricultural producers are no strangers to tough times. Resiliency is a necessary and defining character trait of those who have passed down family-owned farming and ranching operations for generations.
These American producers have learned to live with challenges outside of their control, such as weather and global markets, but also spring to action when they can improve their situations. Congress and the administration ought to take to heart the same lesson – we can’t make it rain or dictate prices, but through sound policies, especially on trade, our nation can better respond to the disaster in farm country and improve the livelihoods of American farmers and ranchers.
Jerry Moran represents Kansas in the U.S. Senate and is a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.