Stephen Censky, deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, delivered a sunny forecast at last week’s EconAlliance Ag Forum in Santa Maria.
The crowd was big and loaded with local officials from the public and private sectors, including a good representation from North County agriculture.
Good news and a sunny forecast are always welcome in a farming community, especially these days with so much going on in trade negotiations between the United States and its trading partners. It’s especially relevant here, as agriculture is North County and Santa Barbara County’s most prolific economic sector.
The good news delivered to last Thursday’s forum attendees is that the Trump administration expects good things in 2020 for strawberry and wine grape growers, mostly because of signed deals on a reworked and renamed NAFTA, and signs of steady progress in the ongoing, and often-conflicted trade negotiations between President Trump and China’s government.
Deputy Secretary Censky outlined the administration’s game plan, which is based on eliminating or easing regulatory barriers that stand in the way of farmers’ ability grow what they need to grow to produce a profit.
Censky said it’s important to remove the regulatory barriers that inhibit trade with global markets, and which he characterized as the biggest single issue facing U.S. agriculture. To us that sounds very much like an argument for free trade, which under the Trump administration seems to be an ever-moving target.
One thing is certain. If Trump’s strategy reopens important markets in China, local strawberry growers will be breaking out the party hats. The same would be true for wine grape growers, as Canada’s market opens more proportionately for U.S. wines.
On a national scale, U.S. farmers have been waiting nearly two years for some kind of breakthrough on the administration’s trade deals, during which time prices for U.S. products, and especially grains, stagnated or disappeared altogether. Recent discouraging news about an increase in farm bankruptcies indicates just how dire the situation had become.
China is inching back toward trade with the U.S. at levels approaching what they had been before Trump launched his tariffs war with our largest trading partner. But the party hasn’t really started yet for U.S. farmers.
Here’s what one North Dakota grain farmer said recently: “President Trump said we’re all going to need to go buy bigger tractors. I don’t think many farmers are going to invest much money until we see that this is a done deal and a long-term deal.”
Much of the farming community’s guarded optimism came before the coronavirus outbreak, which is deadly, spreading and has already had a major impact on international trade. Even worse for farmers is China reducing its demand for U.S. soy and sorghum to feed livestock because of a deadly pig disease that experts estimate has killed off about half the world’s largest hog herd.
That perfectly illustrates the egg-shell nature of farming, the success or failure of which hinges on dozens of factors. Winter is waning in the Midwest, and snow melt often turns into raging rivers and downstream flooding. For California growers it’s the persistent threat of drought. You name the risk, and U.S. farmers are in the midst of it.
Taking all these facts into consideration, it’s small wonder last Thursday’s presentation at the EconAlliance Ag Forum drew a positive response, and perhaps more than a few sighs of relief from North County berry and grape growers. In an industry as prone to disasters as farming, any encouraging news is more than welcome.
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