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Why US growers are betting the farm on soyabeans amid China trade war

Continued demand from Chinese consumers, US crop insurance payouts will help to support prices, they say

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As winter ends and US farmers begin planting, they will continue to cultivate soyabeans despite uncertainty over whether they will be able to sell the crop to China later this year.

Chicago

US farmers are gearing up to plant what could be their third-largest soyabean crop ever despite failing to sell a mountain of beans from their last harvest due to a US-China trade war that remains unresolved.

Soyabeans were the single most valuable US agricultural export crop and until the trade war, China bought US$12 billion worth a year from American farmers.

But Chinese tariffs have almost halted the trade, taking the biggest buyer out of the market and leaving farmers with crops they cannot sell. The US government estimates farmers will have 900 million bushels, or approximately US$8 billion, of last year's soyabeans in storage silos around the country when they start harvesting the next crop.

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The US government rolled out a US$12 billion farm aid package last year to soften the impact of falling revenue on farmers, an important source of votes for President Donald Trump.

As winter ends and farmers begin planting, they will continue to plant the crop despite uncertainty over whether they will be able to sell beans to China later this year. There are simply no better options, farmers say.

"It is tough to rotate out of soyabeans because what else are you going to plant?" asks Darin Anderson, a 41-year-old farmer from Valley City, North Dakota.

One alternative, sorghum, was also dragged into the trade war. Farmers also could increase their corn acreage but the corn-based ethanol industry is struggling. Additionally, farmers who plant corn on the same fields two years in a row need to buy extra fertiliser and fuel.

Alternative niche crops such as hemp are expensive to start growing and have limited markets.

"Farmers have made long-term investments whether it is equipment or storage," says Josh Gackle, a 44-year-old farmer from Kulm, North Dakota.

"All that is very specialised and the transition to something else takes a new set of investments."

That means farmers will plant soyabeans in the hope that the trade war ends, or that they will be compensated by another bailout or crop insurance schemes.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts farmers will sow 34 million hectares of the oilseed this spring. That is down just 4.6 per cent from last year and would be the third-largest US area planted with soyabeans.

The USDA expects soyabean prices to fall in 2019 due to tariffs and rising supply. But soyabean futures prices have performed relatively well, considering the disruption to markets from tariffs. The price is up 5.3 per cent since China imposed a 25 per cent tariff in July. That means many growers have made a slim profit from seeding soyabeans.

"It is not a lot of gravy by any means," says Austin Rincker, a 30-year-old farmer from Moweaqua, Illinois. "But with a good crop, we could still maintain some profitability."

Mr Rincker is aiming for a 50-50 split between corn and soyabeans on his farm after a similar division in 2018. Any further increase in corn would add to his expenses, he says.

Growers are also confident their government-subsidised crop insurance plans will soften the blow if soya prices fall.

Farmers pay for their individual insurance policies, which provide a minimum price they will receive when they book sales for their crops. The federal government funds around 60 per cent of the insurance payouts.

"It is nice to know it is there," says Art Bunting, an Illinois farmer who typically opts for plans that cover 85 per cent of expected revenue, the maximum amount offered under the plans.

The 2019 crop insurance price for soyabeans was set at US$9.54 a bushel based on the futures market activity during February, a rate 62 cents lower than last year. The November soyabean futures contract, which is used to determine the crop insurance price, had dropped 18 cents below that level by the middle of March.

As well as the insurance, farmers were able to tap the government aid programme to boost the profit on their 2018 crop. The bulk of the programme's budget was devoted to soyabean claims. The USDA has said repeatedly the package was a one-off deal.

The economic future of US farmers is in the hands of US and Chinese negotiators working to end the trade war, says Bob Utterback, president of consultancy Utterback Marketing.

"It's going to be bloody out here in farm country without a trade deal," he says.

The USDA expects China's annual soya imports to fall this year for the first time since 2004. China has booked just 11 million tonnes of US soyabean shipments since the marketing year started on Sep 1 2018, down from 28.2 million at the same point a year ago. The country's total soya imports for the year are expected to be 6.5 per cent below last year.

A fast-spreading outbreak of African swine fever reported in 28 provinces and regions has led to mass culling and reduced China's demand for hog feed. China has also tried to boost the amount of alternative feeds used in livestock rations to reduce its dependence on US imports.

But many farmers are convinced China will have to return to the US market because even if it succeeds in reducing soyameal demand, Chinese demand for soyabeans has more than tripled in the past 15 years.

And Beijing has promised 10 million more tonnes of goodwill purchases as part of the trade negotiations, US officials have said.

"I think the demand will continue," says Roger Hadley, a 66-year-old Indiana farmer who is aiming to divide his farm acreage evenly between soyabeans and corn this spring.

"Their folks have got that taste in their diet." REUTERS