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US farmers caught in middle of trade war with China

While they support Trump's efforts to negotiate better trade deals, many unsure on tariffs and fear economic damage

Tariffs can potentially wreak havoc on soya bean prices, which began dropping in May in anticipation of a trade war; some farmers - and the interest groups that represent them - are sounding the alarm.

Harvard, United States

TERRY Davidson expects to be farming long after the US-China trade tariffs that took effect on Friday become a distant memory.

The Illinois soya bean grower is more optimistic than others that things will work out, but many farmers in the Midwestern farm belt are not so sure, following the opening salvos in a trade war.

All are caught in the middle, after Washington on Friday imposed 25 per cent duties on US$34 billion worth of Chinese machinery, electronics and high-tech gear.

Beijing had already said that soya beans would be among US products it would retaliate against, and fought back dollar for dollar immediately after the US tariffs took effect in line with President Donald Trump's repeated criticisms of China's economic practices. "We've survived since the 1800s and we're still going," said Mr Davidson, 41, a fifth-generation farmer and a Democrat among mostly Republicans. "So, I think we'll keep going."

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In the meantime, he is unsure how the tariffs will affect the prices he can command for his crop when harvest time comes in a few months. "Other countries are trying to stock up on US soybeans. They're taking the place of what China has done to us," Mr Davidson told AFP, striking a note of cautious optimism at his farm outside Harvard, Illinois, a two-hour drive and a world away from Chicago.

But other farmers - and the interest groups that represent them - are sounding the alarm.

Soya bean growers are especially concerned. They sell most of their crops overseas, and China is their biggest and fastest-growing market.

While many farmers support Mr Trump's stated efforts to negotiate better trade deals, many are unsure tariffs are the best approach and fear the economic damage they could cause.

Illinois is the nation's top soya bean producer and home to about 43,000 farmers who grow the crop.

Soya beans, they say, are relatively cheap to grow and are in demand overseas, helping farms stay profitable even through the boom-and-bust cycles inherent in agriculture.

The crop is easy to spot in Harvard, covering miles and miles of land, including on Mr Davidson's family farm.

Half of his land is set aside for soya beans, the other half for corn.

The thick rows of soybeans that Mr Davidson walks through are already one metre tall, with broad leaves hiding the small bean pods. He plans to harvest in early autumn. Because he has no storage facility, he will have to sell the crop immediately after harvesting and accept whatever price he can get.

"I've never heard of a tariff on soybeans before by one of our biggest buyers in China," said Mr Davidson, his hair bleached almost white by hours spent under the blazing sun. "But I'm not worried about it at all, because I truly believe it's gonna end by harvest season."

Tariffs can potentially wreak havoc on soya bean prices, which began dropping in May in anticipation of a trade war.

"In the short term right now, we're taking a hit," said Kentucky farmer Davie Stephens, 52. "There's not been a lot of tariff wars that have come along, so some of us have been experiencing this for the first time."

The American Soybean Association has been encouraging farmers to speak out in a social media hashtag campaign, hoping at least to help keep the tariffs short-lived.

"The longer it goes on, China looks - and other customers look - to find other sources (of soybeans)," said farmer Wayne Fredericks, who is on the association's board of directors.

The potential peril is not the farmers' alone. Any economic pain could translate to political hardship for Mr Trump. Soya beans are grown in some of the very Midwestern states that helped elect him in 2016.

The Trump administration believes tariffs are necessary to hold Beijing to account for what the president has described as underhanded economic treatment of the US.

The US trade deficit in goods with China ballooned to a record US$375.2 billion last year.

While many farmers say they are willing to give Mr Trump the benefit of the doubt - hoping he will eventually strike lucrative new trade deals - their patience is finite.

"We've been supportive of an effort to correct these trade imbalances," said Mr Fredericks, a fourth-generation farmer in Iowa. "If (imposing tariffs) works, that's great. If it don't work, there's going to be a lot of disappointment."

The still unanswered question is how long farmers can hold out. Much of the economic pain is yet to come, because importers of US goods bumped up purchases to record levels in anticipation of the tariffs.

Michael Boland, who studies agribusiness at the University of Minnesota, expects the economic pain to last as long as the tariffs do.

"The soybean grower already planted a crop and there was little profit," Mr Boland told AFP. "The tariff will reduce this profit to almost zero or even negative." In Harvard, Mr Davidson is more sanguine, expecting that opposition from farmers and others will lead to a change in the tariff policy.

"I think there will be enough revolt," he said, "that it's going to have to end." AFP

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