DES MOINES, Iowa — American farmers still working to get out their remaining soybeans after a weather-plagued harvest season are struggling to figure out what to do with a record crop now that their traditionally dominant export market is largely closed.
Usually by this point in the year, 100-car trains filled with North Dakota soybeans would be moving to ports on the West Coast destined for China. But this year is different, after China all but stopped buying U.S. soybeans in response to President Donald Trump’s trade tariffs. Fearful of economic failure, farmers are frantically trying to determine how to store a potentially 1 billion-bushel surplus until it can be sold at a decent price.
Farmers have been mostly patient with Trump and his plans to realign trade deals to improve U.S. interests, but the loss of markets is hitting their bank accounts hard.
“As I’ve heard many people say, you can’t pay the bills with patriotism,” said Grant Kimberley, an Iowa farmer and the market development director for the Iowa Soybean Association. “You’ve got to have money and right now we as an industry are a little short on that because we’ve had a major hit in our number one market and it’s been reflected in a major drop in prices.”
North Dakota farmers who sell at the current cash price of around $7.20 a bushel do so at a loss given that the cost of production is about $8.50.
Trump has created a one-time $12 billion program to compensate for the loss in trade, and soybean farmers are to get the largest share of the money. But even with payments from that fund , which amount to about 82 cents a bushel this year, they still fall short of breaking even. Another 82 cents may be approved next year if a trade agreement isn’t reached, the USDA has said.
Farmers have been struggling for five years as the cost of land, fertilizer, chemicals and seed have remained high, but net income has fallen. Some who rent their land or have accumulated high debt could be forced out of farming by the crisis.
“Individually, we’ve got some problems out there,” said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. “This squeeze will be enough to put a few farmers out of business.”
Farmers produced a record U.S. harvest of 4.6 billion bushels this year, but the USDA reports exports to China are down 94 percent from a year ago since Chinese companies were ordered to stop buying American soybeans and find other suppliers.
U.S. soybean farm organizations have cultivated other markets, including Egypt, Argentina and Iran, and boosted sales to the European Union and Mexico. But that doesn’t make up for the gap left by the loss of the Chinese market.
Meanwhile, more beans are going into storage than usual, and this could have an impact on the price of the 2019 crop.
“The real pressure will come in February and March when farmers are trying to bring in some cash … to pay off bank loans and operating loans for the 2018 crop,” said Josh Gackle, who grows soybeans, corn, wheat and barley near Kulm, North Dakota. He said bankers could hesitate to finance another year if soybeans are still selling at unprofitable prices.
As bin space fills up, some farmers are storing beans inside bunkers covered with plastic wrap to keep moisture out, while others are storing them outside, on the ground, in 200- to 300-foot-long plastic bags.
“We don’t (usually) see bean piles on the ground here in our part of Illinois. Grain bagging is something that has always taken place in the background, but boy, you do see a lot of grain bags this fall,” said Austin Rincker, an Illinois soybean and corn farmer near Moweaqua, about 35 miles southwest of Springfield.