Politics and economics are colliding to put the squeeze on American farmers.
Yet from Oregon to Washington, D.C., Americans are not paying attention to what’s happening, even though farmers are the bedrock of rural America, not to mention feeding urban and rural America alike.
Nationally, the Trump administration’s trade disputes with China and other countries have left farmers and ranchers concerned about what will happen to prices and export markets. U.S. agricultural exports to China already plummeted from $19.5 billion in 2017 to $9.1 billion in 2018 as China increased tariffs, and further fell to $1.9 billion during the first half of this year.
That news keeps getting worse. Amid the up-and-down status of trade negotiations, China has now decided to block agricultural imports.
In Oregon, this embargo has a cascading effect. Oregon is trade-dependent. Exports are what bring new dollars into the state, growing the economy. Agriculture accounts for nearly 11% of the state’s exports, with China the fourth-largest destination, and nearly 14% of Oregon jobs are tied to agriculture.
Economic life already was difficult for the American farmer, who receives less than 8 cents of each dollar spent on food. The average U.S. farm income was $43,056 in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than half of farms lost money that year, which explains why farming households typically must also have other jobs and outside sources of income. After all, about 96% of farms — both nationally and in Oregon — are family-owned. The USDA had predicted that farm income would improve during 2019, but that was before China closed its borders to U.S. farm imports.
As Beth Ford, the CEO of Land O’ Lakes, outlined in a recent essay for Fortune, market turmoil is not the only threat to farmers. They have been hammered this year by flooding in the Midwest and drought in Oregon. They and their rural neighbors face a host of challenges, including lack of broadband for business, education and social interaction; limited access to health care; the rural opioid epidemic; and declining population and the departure of young people to urban opportunities.
The average Oregon farmer is about 60 years of age. However, it often is difficult for new farmers to obtain the needed capital to cover operating costs, let alone the price of land. Urbanization and other non-farm uses continue to encroach on agricultural lands in Oregon, reducing the available farm acreage and driving up land prices.
As if all that were not enough, farmers endure the frustration of politicians continually piling on more regulations with the mistaken attitude of “it’s just one more law, so it won’t be burdensome.” Lawmakers do not recognize that one supposedly straightforward law will become a complex set of government rules by the time it arrives in the farm mailbox, forcing farmers to spend even more time at the kitchen table deciphering and implementing legalities instead of being out in the barns, fields and pastures.
Of course, there are some political successes, big and small, for Oregon agriculture. For example, Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, helped stop onerous requirements proposed for Oregon dairies in this year’s Legislature. Lawmakers repealed the outdated crime of unlawfully transporting hay. Gov. Kate Brown reversed course last week and signed HB 2437, a bipartisan bill that clarifies when farmers and ranchers need state permits to clean ditches. And for now, the atrocious HB 2020 — the carbon cap-and-trade scheme labeled by its advocates as Clean Energy Jobs — is dead.
Yet those advocates are assuring Oregonians that the climate-change plan will return for the February 2020 legislative session — and will be approved. Little attention is paid to the reality that the proposed limits on Oregon carbon emissions will have an inconsequential effect on global greenhouse gases and climate instead. Advocates continue to tell rural Oregonians why the carbon cap-and-trade legislation supposedly is good for them — instead of listening to rural Oregonians’ concerns and working collaboratively to resolve those concerns.
This year’s legislative hearings on HB 2020 revealed how littles some urban lawmakers know about farming, including that farmers do not control their crop and livestock prices. Unlike most businesses, farmers sometimes go to market without even knowing the price.
As rural legislators have pointed out, the problem is not that many urban legislators do not understand rural Oregon. The problem is when those legislators mislead themselves by believing they do understand.
It is no wonder that today’s farmer feels whipsawed left and right.