In February, soybean prices were approaching $11 a bushel, a 52-week high for the commodity.
But as of Friday, in the midst of a growing trade war between the U.S. and China, they are at $8.68 a bushel, which Dan Ziller, board president of the McHenry County Farm Bureau, said is not enough to pay the bills.
In response to across-the-board commodity drops, Ziller – who grows wheat, corn and soybeans and raises dairy cows between multiple farms – has had to reduce a full-time farmhand to part-time and put off important machinery and building improvements for his dairy farm.
New tariffs imposed by China, combined with the decline of farm incomes over the past five years and the sporadic weather that has flooded acres of crops this year, has created a “perfect storm” of repercussions for local farmers, Ziller said.
“There’s nowhere to cut costs without it having a huge impact on production,” he said.
China’s tariffs came in retaliation to the $74 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods the Trump administration has enacted over the past six months. Trump already has threatened $200 billion in new tariffs against China and has said he is “ready to go” with as much as $500 billion.
To help offset losses from these retaliatory tariffs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that it would be offering $12 billion in relief to burdened farmers.
Although Ziller said he appreciates the offering of federal relief, it would be the equivalent of applying a Band-Aid to a huge wound versus resolving the trade war.
“I would rather have the export markets back than an aid package,” Ziller said. “American farmers have done a fantastic job promoting their products to other countries and I’d like to see this trade war fixed.”
Mike Von Bergen, a sweet corn farmer in Hebron, said he did not want the $12 billion being offered and wished to use the market as it was intended to be used.
“We want to be able to make money on the open market,” Von Bergen said. “Unfortunately, in our line of work, you have to work through the government on a lot of the trade stuff.”
Since he sold a large portion of his crops before the tariffs were enacted, Von Bergen said he did not feel any significant effects from the change. However, he maintains confidence that trading issues will be sorted out by the next farming season.
McHenry County Board member and farmer Michele Aavang said with the possibility of additional market shrinkage following negotiations between Canada, Mexico and the European Union, export markets need to be viable.
“We have worked hard to be a good, consistent supplier to these other countries and if that is taken away, there are other countries that will step in and fill the void,” Aavang said. “Once you lose a market, it’s really hard to get it back.”
Dan Volkers, manager of the McHenry County Farm Bureau, said farmers invest a large portion of money back into the local economy through fertilizer and seed purchases or insurance costs. With less revenue, farmers will have less to spend, which will have a trickle-down effect.
“It becomes a difference of whether they can afford insurance or not, which is pretty scary,” Volkers said.
Aavang said every farmer she knows relies on an operating line of credit to purchase seed, fertilizer and other resources for the upcoming farming season. She added that bankers often will insist that a farmer carry crop insurance, which can very depending on a farmer’s yield or revenue, to open a line of credit.
“We spend a lot of money before we even put the seed in the ground,” Aavang said. “I don’t know anyone who would lend money without some kind of safety net under them.”
Aavang added that farmers have been conditioned to take the good with the bad and are aware that agriculture is cyclical. But in a prolonged downward trend, the imposition of tariffs could not have worse timing, especially when factoring in other variables such as the weather.
“So many things are out of our hands,” Aavang said. “You can have the best equipment and the latest technology, the latest and greatest seed technology and everything else, but you’re still at the mercy of Mother Nature.”