Business

Tennessee farmers are ‘eternal optimists’ despite trade war

In this Wednesday, July 31, 2019 photo, Jai Templeton, left, former Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture, talks with fellow farmer Brad Hunt, in Adamsville, Tenn. Templeton is critical of Trump's farm bailout efforts. Templeton grows soybeans, which have been hard hit by the trade war with China.
In this Wednesday, July 31, 2019 photo, Jai Templeton, left, former Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture, talks with fellow farmer Brad Hunt, in Adamsville, Tenn. Templeton is critical of Trump's farm bailout efforts. Templeton grows soybeans, which have been hard hit by the trade war with China. Larry McCormack

When Jai Templeton is asked why he farms, he simply gestures to a 250-acre field of soybeans located here in McNairy County.

But as he stands among the soybeans sprouting from the dry, cracked ground, he said the last few years have been especially rough.

"There's moisture somewhere down there," Templeton said. "These things will be wilting a little bit and rejuvenate at night when they get a little dew on them."

But it isn't just the natural conditions that present problems to a good crop — Templeton and his fellow farmers are used to that. Their challenges are compounded by President Donald Trump's ongoing trade war with China.

Before China imposed tariffs on U.S. goods, about every third row of soybeans in his field was exported in foreign markets, Templeton said. Today he estimates it's closer to every 10th row.

Templeton and fellow farmers Brad Hunt and Alex Forsbach are all grateful for a new federal aid package that Trump and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced in May.

But it's not enough to repair damages from the tariffs and natural disasters.

As Templeton looks out at the soybean field, he sees "some lost potential."

—$14.5B will go directly to farmers

Trump's federal aid package promises to put $16 billion toward farmers hurt by tariffs. This follows $12 billion in aid last year.

At the time of the previous package, some Tennessee farmers and elected officials, including former Gov. Bill Haslam, expressed concern about the negative impacts of Trump's tariffs. Some also criticized, saying it came up short.

Recently, Templeton — who served as the agriculture commissioner under Haslam — chided Trump for making it seem as if American producers are in full recovery.

"Farmers have not been made whole," Templeton tweeted. "I am tired of the American public being told otherwise."

But Templeton said he does believe the president's new aid package will be more effective.

Of the $16 billion, $14.5 billion will go directly to American farmers through the Market Facilitation Program.

From July 29 through Dec. 6, farmers can apply for funding at local Farm Service Agency offices. The first round of payments is expected in mid- to late August, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Each eligible farmer will be paid by the acre for non-specialty crops according to a rate set for their county. Payments per acre range from $15 to $150, the USDA said.

The rest of the funding will go toward other ways of helping farmers. $1.4 billion will be put toward buying surplus commodities, while the remaining $100 million will fund trade promotion.

—Federal aid won't 'make them whole'

Charlie Hatcher, the current commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, said he's heard some farmers say they're willing to make short-term sacrifices for the long-term good of the country.

"They're used to up and down years," Hatcher said. "Some have said they're holding out for a stronger agreement with China."

Meanwhile, those short-term sacrifices are taking a toll.

According to Templeton, price drops on crops such as soybeans, cotton, corn and wheat were "almost instantaneous" after the tariffs began in the spring of 2018.

Some farmers are concerned about the lasting effects. Jimmy Tosh, owner and CEO of Tosh Farms in Henry, Tennessee, said he thinks the U.S. is going to suffer a hit to its reputation as a reliable trader.

Beyond that, China is investing more in Brazilian goods. Tosh and Hunt both are worried that the U.S. may not ever again be China's top source for soybeans.

Due to high costs for farmers and low prices in the markets, not to mention heavy damage from flooding, Hatcher said he doesn't think Trump's most recent aid package will "make them whole." But it at least provides some help, he said.

Bill Northey, the USDA's under secretary for farm production and conservation, emphasizes that aid is not a substitution for trade.

Indeed, many farmers and policy experts have borrowed a phrase from Perdue: farmers want trade, not aid.

But Northey said the hope for this year's package is that it will at least help producers get by until the U.S. can reach an agreement with China.

"We're doing our best to bridge folks to a better trade deal," Northey said. "It's not perfect. Almost no one's going to be better off."

But he said he is confident that the U.S. will eventually make a deal with China.

Templeton and Hunt both think they will fare better under this year's aid package, but Forsbach suspects his farm will actually be worse off, even with USDA funding.

"That's not a complaint," Forsbach said. "Looking at the numbers, we are thankful. It helps pay the bills."

One of Templeton's concerns about any federal aid farmers receive is that he doesn't want the American people to "feel like this tariff doesn't impact rural economies that much."

"Farmers have families they have to feed, just like everyone else," he said. "The farm is how they generate their income."

—Tennessee farmers continue to support Trump

Trump continues to be popular with farmers, Templeton said, perhaps largely because of Perdue. Templeton said he has "a tremendous amount of confidence" in Perdue.

"He has a heart for the American farmer," Templeton said. "He is a farmer himself."

The administration also has taken what he said is a common sense approach to regulations, something that sits well with many farmers.

A favorable view of the Trump administration, though, doesn't negate the fact that the tariffs have hit farmers hard.

"When you deal with someone's pocketbook, people get frustrated very quickly," Templeton said.

Not all farmers are big fans of Trump. Tosh has voted Republican his entire life, but he considers himself "Never-Trump."

While he said Trump enjoys strong support in Tennessee, he's "beginning to see some cracks in that support."

Tosh's opposition to Trump stems mainly from the president's trade policies and "how he treats people."

"You cannot run a business when you willy-nilly impose tariffs on countries," Tosh said.

The GOP has historically been the party of free trade, Tosh said, but he said it has become "the party of Trump and against free trade."

—Farmers persevere, 'provide for the next generation'

Despite a torrent of obstacles, Tennessee farmers have reasons to be hopeful, Hatcher said. He cites the support of Gov. Bill Lee, who owns a farm himself, in assisting rural, agricultural communities.

Hatcher and Lee Maddox, director of communications for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, both say farmers are "eternal optimists." Hatcher thinks better days are coming.

Templeton, Hunt and Forsbach are going to keep doing whatever they need to do to yield good crops. For these farmers, it's future generations that motivate them to keep working — that and the idea that they each have a part to play in feeding a nation.

Forsbach said he's proud to know that when someone goes to Kroger, his operation helped get the food there. The American consumer, he said, has access to some of the cheapest food in the entire world.

Farming is a lifestyle that has to operate like a business, Hunt said, but at the center of that lifestyle is family.

Forsbach's family, for instance, immigrated from Germany to become Tennessee farmers.

"My family's farmed since way back when," Forsbach said. "I have two daughters I'm setting up for success when they come of age. That's the main driving force."

It's a farmer's intention to constantly "build and make things better and provide for the next generation," Templeton said.

He recalls his 5-year-old niece, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, answered that she wanted to be a farmer like her "granddaddy," Templeton's 76-year-old father, Jimmy.

"That made that old man get up the next morning and get on a tractor," Templeton said, standing knee-deep among the soybeans. "It was the best morale builder he had had in several years."

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