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Mississippi River flooding ... photo by the Associated Press

FLOODS AND TARIFFS — Farmers fight nature and trade war to keep heads above water

By JACK WEATHERLY

Even with the latest federal “bailout,” the best outlook is break-even for Mississippi row-crop farmers who have been hammered by Chinese tariffs and inundated by flooding, says Dr. Josh Maples, assistant professor of agricultural economics at Mississippi State University.

Prices for soybeans were low at the beginning of the year. Then came the floods that swamped roughly 250,000 crop acres that were, or were planned to be, planted in soybeans, cotton, rice and corn — about 9 percent of arable land in the Delta, Maples said.

The Delta accounts for about 75 percent of the state’s total acreage planted in those crops, Maples said in an email.

President Donald Trump ordered $16 billion through the Market Facilitation Program on May 23 for the woebegone producers.

“Even without the flood, without the tariffs, producers were already looking at a tough year,” Maples said.

The Chinese tariffs were a retaliation – aimed to hit the U.S. economy in a vulnerable spot – for Trump’s 25 percent tariff last year on steel imports and a 10 percent add-on on aluminum products.

The federal government provided $12 billion in aid to farmers in December.

Talks with China to resolve trade issues broke off May 10, though efforts are underway to restart them. Trump has said that his use of tariffs was an effort to level what he calls an uneven playing field that favors China, whose advantage in all trade with America in 2017 was $375 billion, according to the Commerce Department.

Some Mississippi farmers had planted before the flooding and others were waiting for the waters to subside, Maples said.

So-called Yazoo Pumps project, which the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed in 2008, citing possible wetlands damages that would  result, are at the forefront of discussion again because of backwaters, which would have been shunted by the pumps to the Mississippi River.

Crop insurance will cover 60 percent of the soybean crop that was not planted due to wet conditions, according to to Dr. Keith Coble, head of the agricultural economics department at Mississippi State.

Maples said it is impossible at this point to quantify the economic impact on the state. “It depends on how much gets planted,” he said.

Soybeans, the biggest crop in the state, amounted to $1.7 billion in 2017. About one-third of the U.S. soybean crop is sold to China.

Willard Jacks, president of Silent Shade Planting Co. at Belzoni in Humphreys County, said that flooding meant that the operation, which totals 12,000 acres, was curtailed.

Humphreys and Washington County got hit with the backwaters from flooding in Warren, Yazoo, Issaquena and Sharkey counties.

The Silent Shade plan was to plant 5,000 acres of soybeans but only 3,000 got planted, Jacks said. This week was the point of no return on planting soybeans, so Silent Shade will have to rely on insurance and get 60 percent of 75 percent coverage of what was not planted, Jacks said.

“It’s like all insurance. It’s not gonna get you rich, it’s not gonna make you whole, but hopefully, it’ll keep you from going broke.”

The company, which is run by family members and others, was hoping to plant 2,500 acres in corn, but only put 1,800 to work.

Fifteen hundred acres was the goal for rice, but the actual acreage was 1,100, Jacks said.

The company got a break on cotton, getting all 2,900 acres in the ground during a break in the weather and backwaters.

He said he did not know how much the federal bailout money would help.

“We’re kind of like the mouse in the trap. We don’t want any cheese, we just want to get out of the trap,” Jacks said.

Jacks, who is the Mississippi member of the American Soybean Association, said another negative factor this year is the African Swine Fever, which is devastating the Chinese swine herds, thus hurting the demand for U.S. soybeans.

Regarding the bailout, Jacks said that the national association “appreciates the bailouts, but that’s not where most farmers want their money. They want their money out of the market.”

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About Jack Weatherly