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Farmers' feelings on tariffs mixed at Farmfest

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Farmfest show in southwest Minnesota.
Trade issues were a major topic of conversation at the annual Farmfest show in southwest Minnesota that began its annual three-day run on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018.
Mark Steil | MPR News

Farmfest is underway, and along with the machinery exhibits and seed corn displays, you'll find politics.

The annual trade show in southwestern Minnesota attracts more than 30,000 visitors, and this year many of them are wondering about the trade war brought on by import tariffs from the Trump administration. 

Many Minnesota farmers see the need for better trade deals, but they're worried about the financial impact — which many farmers are already feeling.

The tariffs and counter tariffs around the world have dropped sales and the prices of some key U.S. farm exports. Since China placed a tariff on U.S. soybeans, Walnut Grove area farmer Mike Hewitt has watched the price of that crop drop almost 20 percent.

"They're below break even, so we're not making any money on soybeans," said Hewitt.

But even though the decline of the soybean market hurts his income, Hewitt is optimistic about the situation. He says President Trump's trade actions may hurt now, but in the long term he believes they will improve the profitability of foreign trade for all sectors of the U.S. economy, including farmers. 

"I'm hoping things will get resolved and I'm pretty sure they will. It's just a matter of when," said Hewitt.  "And until then we just got to kind of deal with it and hope for the best at the end of it."

For Jessica Ziegler, the timing of the trade war is all important. She's hoping the Trump sanctions pay off.

"We want free trade, we want fair trade," said Ziegler.

She and her husband farm about 25 miles southwest of the Twin Cities near the community of Green Isle. But as her corn and soybean fields mature, and crop prices stay low, she wonders how much of a toll the trade disputes will take on farmers this fall. That's because many farmers will be harvesting their fields at a loss. 

"Hopefully we can get something figured out here in the next couple months," said Ziegler.  "Because if something's not figured out at harvest time, that'll increase a little bit more anxiety I think for people."

That anxiety is already evident in Fred Dauer, who farms about 10 miles south of the Farmfest site near Springfield, Minn. He has a very brief assessment of the Trump trade sanctions.

"It's ridiculous," said Dauer.

He figures the drop in soybean prices means he'll earn about $30,000 less on his crop this fall compared to what he expected last spring. He said he's tormented by the thought that he may not be able to continue farming if the trade disputes are not resolved.

"It's beyond fixing already for this year," said Dauer.  "It just is. It's not going to happen. The price reduction has come about, and we're not going to gain it back."

The lost income comes at a time when farmers are already hurting. Crop and some livestock prices have been around break even for the last four years. 

One study says Minnesota farm income fell in 2017 by about a fifth over the previous year. In response to the falling farm income, the Trump administration has promised about $12 billion dollars in assistance to farmers hurt by the trade disputes, but so far it's not known how much each farmer will get.