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Trump's Tariffs Plan Worries Illinois Farmers

Gerry Broome
China is especially important to pork producers because it buys so-called variety meats, or less desirable cuts such as ears and hooves.

Illinois farmers have cheered President Donald Trump for his moves on regulatory relief, the federal tax overhaul, and his appointment of Sonny Perdue as agriculture secretary.

But last week’s announcement on tariffs has them very concerned.

In a major escalation of the president's “America First” trade policy, the Trump administration is preparing to impose stiff tariffs on Chinese imports. The goal is to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China by $50 billion. Trump is also calling for new limits on Chinese investment in U.S. technology, in an effort to protect what the administration calls America's "economic seed corn."

"There's never a good time for a trade war, but this is a particularly bad one for agriculture."

The Chinese government responded with a list of retaliatory tariffs it would impose on about $3 billion worth of U.S. exports, including pork. Farmers worry that soybeans might be next.

“We hope this is all brinksmanship, a game of international chicken,” said Brian Duncan, a pork producer from Ogle County and an Illinois Farm Bureau board vice president. “But it could be devastating.”

China is a huge market for Illinois farmers, Duncan said. Around 31 percent of all U.S. soybeans go to China, Duncan said, and the growing Chinese middle class demands more meat to feed them.

China is especially important to pork producers like Duncan because it buys so-called variety meats, or less desirable cuts such as ears and hooves.

“They add tremendous value by buying product we wouldn’t be able to sell in the U.S.,” he said.

The American farm economy is hurting right now, said Duncan, facing pressures such as large global supplies, low prices, and fewer government subsidies. All those factors make international markets like China more important than ever, said Duncan, who lives near Polo, Illinois.

“There’s never a good time for a trade war, but this is a particularly bad one for agriculture,” he said.

The Illinois agriculture community has generally cheered many of Trump’s policies, including on taxes and regulatory relief, Duncan said. But Duncan has been concerned about Trump’s moves on trade, particularly his pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and his push to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The tariffs only add to those worries.

Duncan said he’d rather see the U.S. trade representative resolve concerns with China through existing channels, such as the World Trade Organization, rather than new tariffs.

“Can we achieve our goals in a less disruptive manner?” Duncan said. “Let’s not ready, fire, aim. I prefer we aim before we shoot.”

You can also listen to GLT's full interview:

GLT's interview with Duncan.

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Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.