- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2019

President Trump is telling farmers to buy new John Deere tractors, as China commits to purchasing $40 billion to $50 billion in farm purchases. But the heartland is in wait-and-see mode, bruised by a roller coaster trade war and anxious to see whether Asian buyers stick to the fluid agreement.

The administration and a Chinese delegation announced a “phase one” deal about a week ago, giving Mr. Trump a chance to crow about a win for farmers who backed him in 2016 but have seen their Chinese markets for soybeans and other crops crater.

Mr. Trump said he drove a hard bargain by insisting that the Chinese buy more than double the $20 billion in purchases they’re accustomed to — even if farmers struggle to keep up with the demand.

“I said tell them to go out and get bigger tractors, right?” he told supporters in Texas. “Only American tractors. We only buy American tractors. Go out and get bigger!”

Yet farmers are used to hearing big promises, only to see another ripple in talks. The Chinese have been reluctant to cite the $50 billion number, explicitly, saying they’re eager to buy U.S. products but that their involvement should be driven by market needs.

“I’d probably hold off on buying that new tractor yet,” said John Newton, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Even Mr. Trump admits his trade delegation and Chinese officials are still trying to put details on paper ahead of a planned signing ceremony next month in Chile with President Xi Jinping.

But the president, squeezed by an impeachment inquiry and questions around his Syria policy, is talking about farmers and tractors every chance he gets, as his potential 2020 rivals make their own promises in early Democratic primary states like Iowa.

“President Trump is the first person to take a stand against China for decades of unfair trade practices and is holding them to account,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine. “Those ‘America First’ policies of the Trump administration have Americans all across the country living in the strongest economy in decades.”

Mr. Trump characterized the first phase of Chinese talks as the fruit of major deal making on farmers’ behalf. He boasted about it to supporters in Dallas and talked up U.S. farmers in front of Italian President Sergio Mattarella and the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, saying the hockey players’ agents would “be proud” of the deal he cut with China.

Political analysts said people should get used to the pitch.

“Farmers and folks in manufacturing areas are key to his reelection, given the pivotal states involved in the election,” said G. Terry Madonna, a politics professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. “He is going to continue to stress trade deals as a central focus of his campaign.”

The Trump administration and Chinese officials have been trying to strike a trade deal for over a year. They seemed close last spring, yet talks fell apart after the U.S. accused their counterparts of reneging on key details.

Mr. Trump continued to push for one major deal, though he now says it makes sense to break up the talks into phases. The phase one China deal has been greeted with optimism, since it suggests the needle is moving in the right direction.

Trump officials say China will be buying an annual $40 billion to $50 billion in farm products within two years. And while China said the announcement is “consistent” with their intentions, the figure is well above what the Chinese typically buy.

“While the Chinese have said that they generally agree with the president’s take on the agreement, they reportedly have not confirmed the amount of agricultural purchases,” said Jenny Hopkinson, a senior government relations representative for the National Farmers Union. “A lot could happen as they hash out details over the next few weeks.”

Patty Judge, chairwoman of Focus on Rural America and a former Iowa lieutenant governor and agriculture secretary, said farmers will want to see firmer commitments, saying they have been disappointed by this administration on other issues, such as ethanol policy.

“The president seems to think if he has a telephone call or a conversation, he can make a deal. I think people are in wait-and-see mode here,” said Mrs. Judge, a Democrat. “We’re going to continue to be nice folks, but we’re also going to have some skepticism about what is going on with our leaders in Washington.”

Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committeeman for Iowa, said farmers are willing to stick it out for Mr. Trump, in part because they view Democratic candidates as too far-left.

“I think they understand the alternative would be devastating,” he said. “They know that China has taken our country for a ride. They understand you know you gotta be a tough negotiator.”

Farmers largely support Mr. Trump and say it’s important to take on China’s unfair trade practices. Yet they’ve taken it on the chin during Mr. Trump’s trade war, causing them to wonder whether there are other ways to take on the Asian superpower. Soybean sales, in particular, have suffered, dropping to around 10 million tons amid the trade war instead of around 30 million tons they shipped out in previous years.

“We’re been unfairly retaliated against, the agricultural community, What many of our framers and ranchers want is to get back to business as usual,” Mr. Newton said.

There have been good signs, including a recent surge in soybean purchases and an uptick in demand for pork, as China suffers from an outbreak of African swine fever.

Mrs. Judge said families aren’t focused on the day-to-day in Washington — harvest time is coming — but they could use some peace of mind from the world’s two biggest economies, so they know who’s buying their product.

“We are going to harvest corn and beans right now and we have to know what we’re doing,” she said. “The thing that agriculture needs more than anything is stability.”

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