Joined: 25 Jul 2005
Location: St. Pauls, Bristol, England
|Posted: Fri Feb 22, 2019 1:55 pm Post subject:
|Russia feeds off Trump trade war while US corn-belt farmers suffer
David Millward 17 FEBRUARY 2019
For more than 30 years, Joe Peiffer has worked as a lawyer looking after farmers in Iowa, in the heart of the US corn belt.
He was raised on a farm and during the Eighties was a law clerk in a bankruptcy court during the last major US agriculture crisis.
Now he is watching history repeat itself with a wave of bankruptcies across the farm belt.
The number of Chapter 12 bankruptcies – a mechanism that allows family farms to restructure their debts – surged last year as the country paid the price for overproduction at a time when a rejuvenated Russia supplanted the US as the world’s leading wheat exporter.
Russia has muscled in on markets such as North Africa and the Middle East, which were once the preserve of the US. Thanks to its ability to undercut the US, Moscow is cementing its economic as well as diplomatic presence in the region.
The days of the collective farm and antiquated rusting equipment are long gone. Instead, the country’s farmers are boosting production with the aid of an iconic American company, John Deere, which opened a manufacturing plant in Domodedovo, 28 miles south of Moscow, in 2010.
Not only are American grain farmers battling against Russia’s lower production costs, but they are also falling victim to Donald Trump’s trade war with China, which saw Beijing impose 25pc tariffs on US goods including corn and soya beans.
While arable farming has taken the biggest hit, there is growing concern among meat producers about the rising demand for plant-based substitutes, whose sales increased 22pc to $1.5bn (£1.1bn) last year.
A report last year by the Congressional Research Service – which provides information for members of the Senate and House of Representatives – is pretty depressing reading.
It predicted that net farm income across the country as a whole would be substantially below the 10-year average and 31pc less than the record high of 2013 when it reached $135.6bn.
Farm expenses were forecast to increase by 4.2pc compared with 2017 and farm debt was predicted to hit a new high. In Iowa the picture is grim. In 2013 only four farms in the state sought Chapter 12 protection. By 2017, the latest year for which figures are available, the number had soared to 18.
“It is like, here we go again,” Peiffer says. “In some respects, it is tougher than it was in the Eighties when the price of real estate dropped and farmers could come out of bankruptcy and repay the entire value of their farm through a bankruptcy.
“Today land prices and rents have not dropped and there is really not enough profit raising corn and soybeans, which are the main crops here in Iowa.
“I am seeing a lot of financial stress, with many farmers unable to procure crop input financing, which they need for the 2019 crop to pay for seed, fertiliser, rent, fuel and labour.
“We are finding many banks have decided they are not going to make loans to their existing farm borrowers for 2019 inputs.
“Many cannot get financing and those who can have to go to secondary sources, which are far more expensive. Distressed farmers are paying 12pc interest rather than around 6pc and also having to pay additional fees on top.
“Stressed farmers are having to pay a lot more and that impacts on their ability to make money.”
Elsewhere, the figures are equally stark. An analysis by the Wall Street Journal showed that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, recorded twice as many bankruptcies last year than in 2008.
A separate analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota reported 84 farms filing for Chapter 12 bankruptcy.
“Bankruptcies have been spiking and the reason is because prices are low, and have been low, going on four years,” says Ron Wirtz, the bank’s regional outreach director, who has investigated trends in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota.
“When prices are low, farm finances will be under stress, and the longer prices are low, the more farms will be affected.”
The halcyon days of only a few years ago are becoming a distant memory.
“In 2013 prices were high for corn, wheat, soybeans and dairy, which led to overproduction as smaller operators chased yesterday’s market,” says Dec Mullarkey, managing director of investment strategy at Sun Life Investment Management.
“Bankruptcies in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin have doubled since 2008. As we come into spring and farmers need access to funds ahead of the planting season, that is when failures could bubble up as banks become cautious.
“Now Brazil and Russia have come online and they are forcing prices down. They also have the advantage of lower production costs.” The pain is being felt by smaller businesses rather than the big conglomerates. In any case, the family farm is a dying species, with the number having fallen from six million just after the Second World War to two million today.
“The human cost is very significant,” says Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union in Washington.
“There are increasing stress levels that have built up over time. There are a lot of reports suggesting mental health helplines are receiving a level of calls that are at least reaching, if not exceeding, that of the last farming crisis in the Eighties.
“Farms are dispersed and you have increasing isolation out there. Small manufacturing businesses have gone, which means there aren’t off-farm jobs for farmers or their spouses.”
Mr Johnson believes Donald Trump’s administration should shoulder much of the blame for the problems farmers face.
“The administration has picked trade fights all over the world and it is agriculture that has borne the brunt of those battles.”
It is a view shared by Ray Goldberg, professor of agriculture at Harvard Business School.
“It has occurred suddenly because of the policies that have taken place when our president decided to get tough on trade. In the process of doing it, he obliterated long-term relationships in the food sector.
“Once you lose these relationships, they are very hard to get back.
“The people who are affected are farmers because we are an exporting nation in agriculture.”
With the 2020 presidential election looming, Republican strategists are already showing signs of nervousness at the political damage a farming slump could do to Donald Trump’s re-election prospects.
In 2016 an estimated 75pc of farmers voted for Donald Trump and it was their backing in swing states like Wisconsin that helped propel him into the White House.
A Farm Futures poll last August showed that his support had dropped to 60pc, with 24pc saying they would not support his re-election.
They were particularly alarmed about trade, with only 8pc agreeing with the president’s assertion that trade wars were “easy to win”, while 40pc said the trade war had done permanent damage to agriculture.
Brandon Barford, a partner at Beacon Policy Advisors in Washington DC, has noticed that Trump is sensitive to the threat posed by a slump in farmers’ support.
“While we have traditionally thought of Trump’s behaviour as being bound by the movement in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, he has also been known to alter behaviour and policy based on farmer and farm-state members of Congress voicing their displeasure to him directly.
“Farmers are suffering even more now, so Trump is likely to use auto and auto parts tariffs to try to force the EU to include agriculture in the talks, to once again help to show his farming base that though it is bad now, he is fighting for them.”
To use current political parlance, the optics of a farming crisis hitting some of his most loyal supporters are potentially disastrous.
“Politically this could be significant,” adds Mullarkey.
“Agriculture is a significant lobby. There will be a rising number of hard-working people losing their livelihoods and that is a story that will grab the headlines.”
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