President Donald Trump likes to joke that America’s farmers have a nice problem on their hands: They’re going to need bigger tractors to keep up with surging Chinese demand for their soybeans and other agricultural goods under a preliminary deal between the world’s two largest economies.
But will they really?
From Beijing to America’s farm belt, skeptics are questioning just how much China has actually committed to buy—and whether U.S. farmers would be able anytime soon to export goods there in the outsize quantity that Trump has promised.
It amounts to $40 billion a year, according to Trump’s trade representative, Robert Lighthizer. If you ask the exuberant president himself, though, the total is actually “much more than’’ $50 billion. To put that in perspective, U.S. farm exports to China have never topped $26 billion in any one year.
What’s more, since Trump’s trade war with Beijing erupted last year, China has increased its farm purchases from Brazil, Argentina and other countries. As a result, Beijing might now be locked into contracts it couldn’t break even if it intended to quickly increase its purchases of American agricultural goods to something approximating $40 billion.
“History has never been even close to that level,” said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. “There’s no clear path to get us there in one year.”
“The figure of $40 billion,” added Cui Fan, a trade specialist at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, “is larger than I expected, and I wonder whether the United States can ensure the full supply of the products.”
America’s farmers would surely like to. The farm belt has endured much of the impact from Beijing’s retaliatory tariffs since July 2018, when the Trump administration imposed taxes on $360 billion in Chinese imports. Beijing struck back by taxing $120 billion in U.S. exports, including soybeans and other farm goods that are vital to many of Trump’s supporters in rural America.
The impact from China’s retaliatory tariffs was substantial: U.S. farm exports to China, which hit a record $25.9 billion in 2012, plummeted last year to $9.1 billion. Soybean exports to China fell even more—to a 12-year low of $3.1 billion, according to the Department of Agriculture. Farm imports to China have rebounded somewhat this year but remain well below pre-trade-war levels.
The so-called Phase 1 deal that the two sides announced Dec. 13 did manage to de-escalate the standoff and offer at least a respite to American farmers. Yet the truce put off for future negotiations the toughest and most complex issue at the heart of the trade war: The Trump administration’s assertion that Beijing cheats in its drive to achieve global supremacy in such advanced technologies as driverless cars and artificial intelligence.
The administration alleges—and independent analysts generally agree—that China steals technology, forces foreign companies to hand over trade secrets, unfairly subsidizes its own firms and throws up bureaucratic hurdles for foreign rivals. Beijing has rejected the accusations and contended that the administration is instead trying to suppress a rising competitor in international trade.
Under the preliminary U.S.-China deal, Trump suspended his plan to impose new tariffs and reduced some existing taxes on Chinese imports. In return, Lighthizer said, China agreed to buy $40 billion a year in U.S. farm exports over two years, among other things. Beijing also committed to ending its long-standing practice of pressuring foreign companies to hand over their technology as a condition of gaining access to the Chinese market.
Many farmers say they’re hopeful but restrained in their expectations.
“At this point, we have to wait to see more details,” said Jeff Jorgensen, who farms about 3,000 acres in southwest Iowa.
Yet the Trump administration has released no text of the agreement. And a fact sheet that Lighthizer’s office issued didn’t specify the target for increased Chinese farm purchases. What’s more, Beijing has so far declined to confirm the $40 billion figure.
“After the agreement is officially signed, the contents of the agreement will be announced to the public,” said Gao Feng, a spokesman for the Commerce Ministry,
Still, Chinese imports of U.S. soybeans more than doubled in November after the Phase 1 agreement was initially announced in mid-October—a sign that reduced tensions might have begun to ease the strain on American farmers, according to AWeb.com, a news website that serves China’s farming industry.
Beijing insists, though, that its farm purchases will be based on consumer demand and market prices, pointedly implying that it won’t buy more than it needs just to satisfy the Trump administration’s promises.
“The purchases should be based on market principles,” said Tu Xinquan, director of the China Institute for WTO Studies in Beijing. “The United States should compete with other countries through price and quality.”
Some analysts suggest that it’s at least theoretically possible for the U.S. to boost its farm exports to China to something close to the figures the administration has promised. Flora Zhu, associate director of China corporate research at Fitch Ratings, calls the $40 billion “achievable.’’
She notes, for example, that China’s demand for soybeans amounts to $40 billion a year. Even before the trade war, the U.S. supplied about a third of that total—“suggesting, Zhu said, that “there is still large room for China to increase its purchases of soybeans from the U.S.”
In addition, China’s demand for imported pork has intensified because its own pig herds have been decimated by an outbreak of African swine fever. Yet that same outbreak could reduce China’s need for American soybeans: Fewer hogs could mean less demand for soybeans and other sources of feed.
But achieving $40 billion a year would likely require diverting market share away from other countries—Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand—that export sizable quantities of farm goods to China. Those nations could then argue to the World Trade Organization that they are losing exports not because they can’t compete but because China is being coerced into buying from the U.S. to avoid Trump’s tariffs.
“It is a situation many countries are concerned about,’’ said Tu of the WTO studies institute in Beijing.
U.S. farmers sound wary. Some worry that the prolonged trade war will brand the United States an unreliable trade partner in China and jeopardize access to a vast Chinese market that had increased its purchases of U.S. farm products from less than $1 billion a year in the early 1990s to nearly $26 billion by 2012. U.S. farm exports to China then fluctuated between about $20 billion to $25 billion a year before Trump’s trade war erupted in earnest last year.
Farmers have watched with frustration as breakthroughs in the trade war appeared several times to have been achieved only to collapse soon thereafter.
“I think it’s a lot of false promises again,” said Bob Kuylen, who grows wheat and sunflowers and raises cattle near South Heart, North Dakota. “I’d love to see $50 billion, but I don’t think it will ever happen. ... It’s just almost an impossible thing, so why even say it?”
Stephen J. Behl
Archie R. Haase
Myrtle Ann Thorp
Dennis H. Westby
Much of the stuff under the Christmas tree was great for dazzling the eye and pumping up the merry making.
But now it’s over.
The pretty papers, plastic packaging and all that cardboard are now waste. Most of it will end up in one of those two carts—recycling or trash.
Kamron Nash, operations superintendent for the city of Janesville, answered these questions about holiday trash.
One caution: Some of these ideas are good to keep in mind when recycling in general, but some are specific to Janesville residents.
Q: Does the solid waste stream get bigger this time of year?
A: “Oh, absolutely.”
Q: Is gift wrap recyclable?
A: Yes, if it’s actually paper. If it’s not paper, throw it in the trash. Also trash the tape and ribbons and bows.
Nash noted that wrapping paper made of recycled paper is available, and buying it supports the recycling cycle. Good tip for next Christmas.
Q: I get a lot of junk mail …
A: If it’s paper, it’s recyclable.
Q: Let’s talk cardboard.
A: “There’s a lot more cardboard boxes, especially with Amazon and all the deliveries going on right now.”
Dan Jongetjes of John’s Disposal in Whitewater, which handles Janesville recycling, said a big problem is people with new appliances leaving the Styrofoam and plastic wrap inside the box, which causes problems when paper mills try to process it.
Jongetjes said the volume of cardboard has become “unreal” because of online shopping.
Nash asks residents to break down cardboard so it doesn’t get stuck in the handling equipment. That also allows trucks to carry more material.
Don’t put appliance-sized boxes at the curb. They won’t fit into a truck’s hopper opening.
Don’t recycle cardboard contaminated with food. There is no resale market for cardboard with all that oily, gooey stuff stuck to it.
Q: What about food in glass or plastic containers?
A: Food that stays in those containers can rot and stain the product, making it less desirable for resale.
Containers don’t need to be sparkly clean, but rinse them well. Don’t leave ketchup and mustard inside those containers, for example. Often, all it takes is to fill that salsa bottle and give it a good shake.
A bottle of pop or beer, on the other hand, doesn’t really need to be rinsed, Nash said.
Speaking of bottles, glass is not the best choice because if it breaks, the broken glass ends up in the landfill.
When possible, choose aluminum.
Many glass products are not recyclable, including drinking glasses, various kinds of cookware and lightbulbs.
Q: What about plastics?
A: Bubble wrap and plastic bags should never be thrown into the recycling bin. They get wrapped and twisted in the sorting equipment, causing headaches for recyclers.
Some stores accept clean bags for recycling, however.
Q: And hard plastics, including those that often are part of toy packaging?
A: Any hard plastics in categories 1 through 7 are recyclable. An internet search will pop up numerous articles and illustrations showing what those plastics look like.
Q: Getting new stuff often means getting rid of old stuff. Can I put old stuff made of metal in the recycling?
A: “I call that wish recycling because they want it to be recycled, but it really isn’t.”
See the city website for tips on this and other recycling questions.
Many private recyclers will take appliances. They might charge a fee. The city accepts appliances in a drop-off area at the landfill. A $10 fee is charged for many appliances. Ask the attendant for directions.
Q: What about an old computer keyboard or game player and other electronics?
A: “It’s actually prohibited by state law, not that people don’t try to do that, but we ask that you don’t because it’s not good in the landfill.”
Electronics can contain toxic materials, including heavy metals.
Some stores accept old electronics for recycling, and some recycling companies will recycle electronics for a fee.
Q: I have so much recyclable stuff. Can I drop it off at the landfill?
A: Yes, if you are a city resident. This not a service for businesses.
Former school teacher and state education secretary Tony Evers isn’t ready to give himself a grade on his first year as Wisconsin’s governor.
“Incomplete,” Evers said during a wide-ranging interview that looked back at his first year in office and ahead to 2020. “After four years, I’ll be glad to offer A through F, but at this point it’s incomplete.”
Evers’ first year was marked by partisan disagreements with Republicans who control the Legislature, and although he and his fellow Democrats have registered some victories, little headway was made on many substantive issues.
“I think we made good progress where we’re poised to do better things in the future,” he said.
Evers took office in January after defeating two-term Republican incumbent Scott Walker. But Republicans maintained their majorities in the Legislature, creating a recipe for gridlock that proved largely to be true. Republicans started by cutting Evers’ powers during a lame duck legislative session before he even took office. Most major Democratic proposals have been stymied, and Republicans have described themselves as serving as a “goalkeeper” to block Evers’ agenda.
Still, Evers did sign a budget that hit many of his top priorities and campaign promises. He increased funding for schools and the UW System and put more money into roads and health care—but far less than what he wanted. He also cut middle class taxes by 10%, which Republicans strongly supported.
He cited the enactment of the budget as a highlight, calling it a “down payment on the future.”
“We set a high bar,” Evers said. “We had some success in getting there.”
Many other issues are going nowhere.
Bipartisan bills that would legalize medical marijuana have stalled, as have Democratic efforts to expand Medicaid; address the “dark store” loophole, a property tax issue that’s important to local governments; and institute new gun control measures.
Evers tried to force Republicans to debate universal gun background checks and a “red flag” law that would give judges the power to take guns from people determined to be a risk to themselves or others, but Republicans didn’t even debate the measures before adjourning a special session Evers called.
Their discord also showed up in the usually routine matter of confirming Cabinet secretaries, those who lead state agencies and work closely with the governor.
Republicans rejected Evers’ choice for the state agriculture department, in part because of his push to institute divisive, tougher siting rules designed to protect farmers’ neighbors from the stench of manure. It was the first time the Senate had rejected a Cabinet pick since at least the 1980s.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the Senate could adjourn for the year without voting on some of Evers’ Cabinet picks.
The Senate fired Evers’ agriculture secretary the same week it took no action on the gun bills during the special session. Evers showed his anger, lashing out at Republicans in comments to reporters laced with four-letter words.
Evers tried to force Republicans to release money to combat homelessness earlier this month, but they refused.
While Evers refused to give himself a grade on his first year, legislative leaders were happy to.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos gave him a C, while he said the budget was worthy of an A-minus.
“C is average, right?” Vos said. “You know, in many ways I feel like it’s incomplete because I haven’t seen a whole lot of proposals from him. But I would say average.”
Fitzgerald declined to give Evers a grade, but he was critical of how the governor worked with lawmakers.
“It’s been kind of a rocky road,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Democrats were more generous.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling gave Evers a B. Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz gave Evers an A-minus, although he said many of Evers’ victories—like flying a gay pride flag over the Capitol for the first time—were symbolic.
Hintz praised Evers for trying to govern from the center. That’s a break from Walker, who Hintz said was “political 24-7.”
“I think it comes across as authentic,” Hintz said of Evers. “Some of the victories have been symbolic, but I’ve appreciated his willingness to speak out on issues.”
Evers rejected the notion his victories were symbolic, specifically citing funding increases for schools, roads and health care included in the state budget as substantial.
Those “would not have happened if I wasn’t sitting in this office,” Evers said. “And all you have to do is walk down the street and walk around the state and talk to people in the schools and ask them if they got a better deal under me than Scott Walker.”