'Window is closing' for US soybean farmers as anxiety grows over trade disputes

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John Boyd Jr. drives a tractor on his farm in Baskerville, Virginia, the United States, on May 15, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

John Boyd Jr., a fourth-generation farmer in the U.S. state of Virginia, has only planted about one fourth of his soybean crop so far this year. "I am part worried and part frustrated and I'm very disappointed," he said.

At his family farm in Baskerville, southern Virginia, Boyd told Xinhua earlier this week that the planting window is closing for his soybeans. "If my crop isn't planted one month from right now ... then it's all over for me, and not just for me, (but also) for other American farmers," he said.

Boyd owns 700 acres of tillable land, with 400 acres of soybeans, and some corn and wheat. He was planning to expand his farm operation last year, but the U.S.-initiated trade frictions with China over the past few months have put the 53-year-old farmer on edge.

"The tariffs have been devastating for me," said Boyd, noting that China is the largest purchaser of U.S. soybeans. "When President (Donald) Trump announced ... the tariffs, the price of soybeans plummeted and we really didn't have a market."

Last summer, the United States imposed additional tariffs on billions of U.S. dollars of Chinese goods, provoking swift retaliation from China, which impacted the export of U.S. agricultural products, including soybeans.

Prior to the trade disputes, the price of soybeans was about 11 U.S. dollars per bushel, Boyd said, but now it's hovering around 8 dollars or less, recently even reaching a 10-year low, which leads to "a 50-percent reduction in income" for him.

As a cash and carry farmer, Boyd usually harvests what he grows in his fields, and sells them to the closest grain elevator, Smithfield Foods, a U.S. subsidiary of the Chinese pork producer WH Group Ltd. When the price plunged, Boyd had to sell everything he had at a loss.

After a tractor malfunctioned recently, the soybean farmer took effort to repair it by himself, whereas in the past, he would have sent the tractor off to a shop to fix it. Some of the "much-needed" equipment repairs are put on hold "simply" because he doesn't have the cash, Boyd said.

"It's been a financial strain on our farming operation," said Boyd, who has six workers to support. With the gloomy outlook, he has yet to receive a farm operating loan.

"It all stems from a snowball effect from the president imposing tariffs, which I think was a poor decision," said the soybean grower, adding that the decision has put his business "in turmoil and in question."

Boyd, who is also the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, said he doesn't think tariffs are the right approach to address any problems between the two countries. Instead, a "more diplomatic approach" should have been taken.

"If you have good conversation, anything bad can wind up good," he said.

Caught in the U.S.-China trade disputes, Boyd has been anxious. "As soon as I am off the tractor and take a shower and walk to my house, I'm flipping through (the news)," he said. "It's been very depressing for farmers like myself."

To mitigate the risks, Boyd even started planting hemp, a crop he barely had any experience for. Besides going through a learning curve in growing, he would need to spend much time and money establishing and expanding sales channels, a challenging task.

It took U.S. farmers more than 40 years to build the soybean market in China, President of the American Soybean Association Davie Stephens told Xinhua in a recent interview, warning that it will become "increasingly difficult to recover" as the U.S.-China trade row rumbles on.

With depressed prices and unsold stocks expected to double by the 2019 harvest, U.S. soybean farmers are unwilling to be "collateral damage" in the endless trade disputes with China, said Stephens, who is also a soybean grower from the U.S. state of Kentucky.

The U.S. government previously offered 12 billion dollars to help farmers weather the fallout, which would mean 1.65 dollars of subsidy per bushel for soybeans. "I haven't received a dime of that," Boyd said, adding that the process has been slow.

Boyd's efforts to reach out to federal government officials such as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue have gone nowhere. "Those requests were fell upon deaf ears," he said.

However, government aid is not the way out for Boyd. "I don't want the aid. I want a fair price for my crop," said the farmer.

With the announcement of the latest round of tariffs, Boyd's patience is waning. "I was (optimistic) until this week," he said, adding that he thinks the U.S. president's recent decision to further hike tariffs on Chinese goods "hurts the process" that the two sides have been making.

"I don't know what I'm going to do now and that's a bad position to be in as a farmer," said Boyd. Farmers plan by year, he said, and several rounds of tariffs have thrown his plan of action "off the highway."

"The tariffs need to be removed," Stephens said, adding that U.S. soybean farmers yearn for "trading as normal" with China. "Let's get back to trading in an open market. That's free trade for both sides," he said, calling for negotiations to achieve a win-win outcome as soon as possible.

For Boyd and his fellow farmers, the clock is ticking. "There is an urgency of now, right now that this needs to be fixed," Boyd said.

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