By Gary Truitt
Planting season is usually a time of hope and optimism for farmers. Tilling the soil and planting the seeds generate hopes for a bountiful new crop. This year, however, it is a different story. Farmer optimism is falling, and more and more producers are looking to the future with trepidation. The slow start to planting and the excessively wet conditions are causing farmers a good deal of frustration, but weather alone cannot account for the bad mood many growers are in.
The April Purdue/CME Ag Economy Barometer showed a marked decline in farmer attitudes and confidence in the future. Producer sentiment declined 18 points to a reading of 115, down from 133 in March. The barometer, a sentiment index, is based on a monthly survey of 400 agricultural producers across the U.S. The barometer’s decline was driven by worsening perceptions of current economic conditions and of weaker expectations for the future, according to James Mintert, author of the report. “Producers have taken stock of their financial position and prospects for 2019 as they head into planting season and are concerned about the uncertainty arising from the ongoing trade disputes with key ag trading partners,” he stated. “Right now it seems that producers are being cautious.”
According to the survey, farmers are also growing less optimistic there will be a successful outcome to the current trade dispute with China. “Only 28 percent of respondents felt that the dispute would be resolved before July 1, down from 45 percent in March. While 71 percent still feel the dispute will ultimately be resolved in a way that benefits U.S. agriculture; this is down from the March figures,” said Mintert.
Last year, when the President announced his steel tariffs, farmers were strong supporters and, despite the market disruption that resulted, remained loyal. The financial aid that was given to farmers late in 2018 also went a long way to sustaining support for the Trump trade agenda. But, with progress on trade moving slowly and the USMCA stalled in Congress, farmer support may be changing.
Feeling the pressure from their members, commodity groups are making statements that are less supportive of the President’s plan than they were. Davie Stephens, a grower from Clinton, KY and president of the American Soybean Association (ASA) said, “We understand that Mr. Trump and his Administration have broad goals they want to achieve for our country, but farmers are in a desperate situation. We need a positive resolution of this ongoing tariff dispute, not further escalation of tensions.” This ongoing uncertainty is unacceptable to U.S. farmers, Stephens continued, “With depressed prices and unsold stocks forecast to double before the 2019 harvest begins in September, we need the China market reopened to U.S. soybean exports within weeks, not months or longer.”
The President continues to voice strong support for farmers and promises a resolution soon. He told the AFBF convention in January, “We’re doing trade deals that are going to get you so much business, you’re not even going to believe it.” Yet the lack of real progress makes these promises look empty. This may be the reason Mr. Trump is turning up the heat on Beijing to reach an agreement soon and why Ag Secretary Perdue is headed to Japan. When Vice President Pence visited Indiana last month, he got a strong message from farmers that urgency was their main concern.
A recent poll indicated that Hoosiers, in general, are losing faith in Washington. According to a We Ask America poll, 51% of Indiana’s registered voters say that the country has gotten off on the wrong track. Increasingly, GOP lawmakers are speaking out against the Trump trade approach. “There’s a lot of feeling in farm country we’re being used as pawns in this whole business,” Senate Ag Committee chairman and Kansas Republican Pat Roberts told the Washington Post.
So, while it is true that farmers are unhappy, pessimistic, and facing financial uncertainty, they are still willing to back the President. “Farmers are losing their patience, yeah, but they want to see a deal,” said Iowa Senator Joni Ernst. Yet the signs are there, support is eroding and the longer it takes to get U.S. agricultural trade back growing again, the more support the President will lose.