First Storms, Now Tariffs Hit Embattled Farmers

Jun 6, 2019

Jeff Tyson, President of the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association, stands in one of the buildings on his farm in Nashville, North Carolina on Thursday, May 16, 2019. Tyson explains that since so much of U.S. produce is shipped overseas, the international trade disputes will make it difficult for American farmers to sell their crops at a profit.
Credit Madeline Gray / For WUNC

North Carolina farmers are among the geopolitical victims in the ongoing trade war between the United States and China. Following Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, farmers across the state are now weathering the impacts of tariffs.

"Farmers are, we've got to be optimists," said Jeff Tyson, inside a barn on his Nash County farm. "It's not fun right now because, you know, no matter what you do it's going to be very hard to make end's meet."

We've got to be optimists. "It's not fun right now because, you know, no matter what you do it's going to be very hard to make end's meet." -Jeff Tyson

Tyson has a subtle intensity about him, with thick forearms, blue jeans brushed in dirt, and a bushy, auburn beard hiding much of his face.

He's been farming since he was a boy, and on his own for more than 20 years now. Tyson grows tobacco, sweet potatoes, cotton, cucumbers, peanuts, and soybeans, on nearly 6,000 acres of land scattered across Nash, Halifax, Wilson and Edgecomb counties. More than a third of that acreage is dedicated to soybeans.

The complex trade war has disrupted the import-export equilibrium of agriculture. In retaliation to U.S. trade policy changes, China hit soybeans with a 25 percent tariff.

"As a county, as a whole, it's probably something that needed to be done, but seems like a lot of the burden is coming all the way to the bottom of the hill," said Tyson, who supports President Trump's mission to improve trade deals in other industries. "But the fact of the matter is, we're at the bottom."

Omar Alejandro, left, and Jeff Tyson, right, work on a tractor for planting stevia at Tyson's farm in Nashville, North Carolina on Thursday, May 16, 2019.
Credit Madeline Gray / For WUNC

Tyson also acknowledged that for now his land has amounted to collateral damage. Soybean farmers are expected to take a hit this year, as the cost to recently plant is greater than the futures prices for the crop.

Due to the tariff China enacted, the volume of soybeans going from the U.S. to Asia has plummeted in recent months.

"Typically, 40 percent of the U.S. soybean crop is exported," said Owen Wagner, CEO of the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association. "And about half that goes to China, so if you remove that market, that outlet so to speak, you're going to have more and more stocks building up in the United Stated and from that point it kind of works back to the basic law of supply and demand."

Adding to the supply boom is Brazil, which ratcheted its own soybean production up in recent years, and yes climate change factors are also at play.

Soybeans begin to sprout on Jeff Tyson's farm in Nashville, North Carolina on Thursday, May 16, 2019.
Credit Madeline Gray / For WUNC

David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican currently serving in the State House, is also a farmer. He has about 1,500 acres this year. He believes this price drop was coming, regardless of tariffs.

"What we're seeing, at least as far as soybeans, is more just an overall price correction from really a supercharged inflation area that was being paid back during the ethanol craze a few years ago," Lewis said.

More soybeans are grown in North Carolina than in any other southeastern state. And most of them go to feed hogs, helping to fatten up a major agriculture industry in the state.

But as Lewis alluded to, another use is to create biodiesel. In 2011 the Obama Administration banned the sale of E-15 during the summertime because it contributes to additional smog in the summer months. This past Friday, the Trump administration lifted that ban, hoping to help some soybean and corn farmers.

For soybean farmers, it was a bit of good news. But hurricane season began last week, the latest reminder that in this profession, the next challenge is never too far away.

ADDITIONAL PHOTOS:

Jeff Tyson's farm in Nashville, North Carolina on Thursday, May 16, 2019.
Credit Madeline Gray / For WUNC

Jeff Tyson, President of the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association, works on a tractor for planting stevia on his farm in Nashville, North Carolina on Thursday, May 16, 2019.
Credit Madeline Gray / For WUNC

Jeff Tyson, President of the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association, works on a tractor for planting stevia on his farm in Nashville, North Carolina on Thursday, May 16, 2019.
Credit Madeline Gray / For WUNC

A sign sits on the road beside Jeff Tyson's farm in Nashville, North Carolina on Thursday, May 16, 2019.
Credit Madeline Gray / For WUNC

Correction: A previous version of this story said soybeans are use to create ethanol. While soybeans are used to produce ethanol in Brazil, in the U.S. ethanol is primarily made from corn.

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