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As Harvest Looms, Trade Storm Swirls Over US Farmers

As Harvest Looms, Trade Storm Swirls Over US Farmers
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As Harvest Looms, Trade Storm Swirls Over US Farmers

COLFAX, ILLINOIS - The outlook on Megan Dwyer’s rural Illinois farm earlier this year seemed dire.

Heavy and continuous spring rains hampered planting conditions, and some of her fields never saw one seed of corn or soybeans.

“We’re probably 15 percent prevent plant, that we weren’t able to put a cash crop in,” she told VOA, with the sun now shining on the crops Dwyer was able to get in the ground.

“There are some things that are green and growing,” she admits, but there’s also been a little too much sunshine this summer.

"We went from too much rain to we hardly got a drop the entire month of July," she says.

"We’ve had kind of a flash drought in this area," says farmer Reid Thompson, who tends land in Colfax, Illinois, a few hours east of Dwyer’s farm. "Here, we haven’t had two inches in a month."

Thompson was more fortunate earlier this year, getting all of his seeds planted in time, even if the price he was looking at then wasn’t ideal.

"When we started planting, the corn price went down to $3, $3.20. Beans were almost under $8 dollars."

Down from $10 dollars just a year ago, a dip Thompson attributes mostly to Chinese tariffs.

Caught in the middle

U.S. farmers, currently caught in the middle of an ongoing trade dispute between the Trump Administration and China, are also facing one of the most erratic years of weather variations, leaving many fields unplanted. Although prices for U.S. corn and soybeans have stabilized despite the weather, the lack of a trade agreement with China and the uncertain fate of the U.S., Canada, Mexico Trade Agreement is creating a perfect storm in a season already filled with uncertainty for farmers.

"When you are faced with that situation, and production risk is becoming real, and then your trade opportunities and your buyers are going away, it’s really frustrating," Thompson told VOA during an interview at his farm.

"Our farmers are kind of in the dumps right now," says Illinois Farm Bureau Senior Economist Mike Doherty, even though he says there was recently a sign of hope in the trade standoff with China.

“There were purchases in just the last two days of soybeans by the Chinese, so those are called committed sales, or sales that were booked, and they are making good on those despite the rhetoric that they would stop buying from us.”

Chinese threats

But Doherty says China continues to threaten a boycott of U.S. soybeans, at a time when demand for the crop is diminishing as Asian swine flu ravages the animals – pigs - in China who consume the soybeans for protein. Without easy access to one of the key markets for U.S. soybeans, at a time when the weather has brought havoc to production certainty, Doherty says the hardship is likely to continue.

“It is already as bad as anything we could have imagined or worse,” he told VOA. “I’ve been here 25 years as an ag economist in Illinois, and I’ve never seen anything like this. No matter where you drive, you run into fields with stunted corn and stunted soybeans and they can not possibly yield great. And if we have an early frost or other things that happen over the course of this crop year, those yields are going to go down even further.”

Which is Dwyer’s big concern - how much of her planted crops can she salvage before the first frost arrives?

“We’re still a little nervous on if it’s going to hit maturity before we hit a freeze.”

She hopes trade relations with China warms up by then, so if the weather doesn’t cooperate, a strong market exists for the product farmers are ultimately able to harvest.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.