There’s a long road ahead for farmers in the Palmetto state as the tariffs set by President Donald Trump in 2018 show no signs of easing up.
For the second year in a row Chinese tariffs on a variety of U.S. agricultural products, including soybeans, corn and pork have driven the price of those products down for U.S. farmers. A tariff is a tax or duty on imports or exports and seen as a way to regulate trade among countries.
And to counteract the drop in prices due to the ongoing trade war between the United States and China, those who farm soybeans, cotton, corn, sorghum, dairy, hogs, and wheat have been given federal aid relief in the form of the Market Facilitation Program, known to farmers as MFP payments. According to data obtained by the Associated Press, South Carolina received $24 million between September 2018 to May 2019, split among 1,500 farmers. However, some farmers say those payments are only doing so much.
“Fifty dollars an acre and they gave you half of it, so $25 an acre versus $200 an acre. The tariffs are costing us about that much, but it is what it is and I mean I’m not worried about it,” John Rivers, a Sumter County farmer, said as he looks over one of his workers driving a combine down rows of cotton that’s about to be harvested. The payments are helping him scrape by, but he says he’s not getting ahead. “No one goes into farming to get rich.”
Even so, Rivers insists he’s hopeful. And as far as farmers in the state go, he said he’s doing okay.
His farm is large and has been built up over multiple generations. He employs other workers and has acres of diversified land growing five major crops: cotton, soybeans, wheat, peanuts, and corn. His sprawling farm helps him yield more crops, and yielding more crops, is what brings in the money, he said. And while he said he doesn’t know where all of his crops go when they leave the farm to be sold, trying to sell his crops domestically doesn’t solve the issue. He said he does not have control over that as the price for crops are determined by the Chicago Board of Trade and tariffs on American crops lower the overall price for American agriculture products.
He admits his crops have less value now than they did before the tariffs were enacted. “I think things will change and I think things will turn around and I’m not worried about the tariffs at all,” he said.
But in the short term, he said “it’s hard when you’re losing about $200 an acre for your cotton and your soybeans.”
Some farmers are faring much worse, however.
On a small 800-acre farm in Eastover, Jason Carter, has decided to stop growing soybeans and plant a crop he hasn’t harvested on his farm in over a decade.
“Haven’t planted any wheat in maybe over 15 years, but we’re going to try wheat this year, can’t make any money with the soybeans,” Carter said, as he drove a beat-up dusty pick up truck around his farm, looking out at the acres of currently empty land set aside for the winter wheat to grow.
Carter said that ultimately the risk of continuously getting lower MFP payments is what led him to decide not to grow soybeans in the upcoming year. And while the amount of money each farmer received varied from farm to farm, Carter says it wasn’t explained to farmers why some received more money than others.
“You hear Trump saying, ‘I’m going to look out for the farmers,’ but you get this unfair payment, we got 33, but there’s some counties who only got 15, 16 dollars an acre,” Carter said.
Clemson extension agribusiness professor Adam Kantrovich, who works out of Clemson’s Sandhills Research and Education Center in Richland County, said he understands why many farmers are mystified by the payment system.
“The impact value was determined by the USDA. Every farmer that has been deemed eligible through an application in a particular county will receive the same county rate per acre for each acre of planting an eligible crop,” he explained in an email.
“To give you an example, Richland County, the acre rate is $33, while Florence County, the rate is $51 and York County is $94. Again, none of these is a guarantee but payments will be based on market conditions, so a farmer may or not may receive the total maximum amount of the per acre payment.”
In an interview, Kantrovich said the MFP payments will probably sustain many farmers for now. But without an actual change in trade policy, the trade war could have a longterm detrimental effect on farmers.
Kantrovich believes that the longer the trade war continues, the more likely other countries will see the United States as an unreliable trading partner. On top of that, the demand for American crops will continue to go down, keeping the prices low as China has already found a new market for products like soybeans in South America. Kantrovich says that China would most likely not have an incentive to switch back.
“No one thought it was going to last this long. But when you’re dealing with a big country like China they can hold out. We can’t. It’s a gamble, but that’s how farming’s always been,” Carter said.
At the White House earlier this month, President Trump told reporters that he hasn’t “agreed to anything, but we’re getting along very well with China. They want to make a deal. Frankly, they want to make a deal a lot more than I do.”