The Federalist is gaslighting farmers on Trump’s trade war

The Federalist: Farmers’ soybean woes are actually the result of swine fever, 2014 soybean prices, and the farmers themselves, but not Trump

Farmers are suffering under Trump's trade war
Ceci Freed / Media Matters

As soybean farmers continue to suffer because of President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, the conservative website The Federalist published a falsehood-filled article that attempted to shore up farmers’ flagging support for Trump by arguing they should not blame the president for their woes. 

The August 20 article by Willis Krumholz kicked off by criticizing demonstrably true coverage of the United States’ trade war with China: “The popular narrative goes that because President Trump launched a trade war against China, China has retaliated by tariffing agriculture products from red states that voted for Trump. False.” 

In reality, Trump kicked off the trade war with China in July 2018 by imposing tariffs on the importation of Chinese goods. In response, China placed tariffs on U.S. agricultural products such as soybeans and dramatically reduced importation of U.S. soybeans in favor of increased purchases from other countries, in particular Brazil. The trade war is causing serious additional financial problems for soybean farmers, as the price and market for U.S. soybeans has tanked as a direct result of Trump’s policy. (Disclosure: The author’s family farms corn and soybeans in Illinois.)

After calling this obviously true reporting “false,” Krumholz then turned to several disingenuous explanations for the supposed reasons soybean farmers are hurting. 

First, the article posited that “a big reason that China is buying less soybeans” overall is because of an outbreak of African Swine Fever in China’s hog industry:

There’s a big reason that China is buying less soybeans, and it has nothing to do with the trade war. China’s pig population is being rocked by a terrible pig disease called African Swine Fever (ASF). What is ASF? ASF was first detected in Africa more than a century ago, but it has been spreading like wildfire in China since at least last year. There is no cure for ASF, and it kills well more than 90 percent of the pigs it infects in less than a week, via massive hemorrhaging. This is a gross, messy disease—think of Ebola, but for pigs.

In reality, China’s importation of soybeans is actually surprisingly strong given that its hog population has been ravaged by the disease. As CNBC reported in July, “Soybean demand in China appears to be surprisingly robust despite the widespread culling of pigs due to African swine fever” and that the trend may be explained by the fact that some Chinese farmers are switching to soybean-based feed in order to curb the epidemic, which may be caused by feeding pigs food waste. As Asia commodity analyst Darin Friedrichs explained to CNBC, “If China loses about 40% or more of their hogs, we would normally assume soybean demand would be down a large amount as well. At this point it’s maybe only down 5-10% or so which is surprising.”

In August, UPI reported that China’s soybean purchases were “remarkably strong” and that “there is no denying that China is buying far more soybeans than industry experts expected.” According to UPI, in addition to hog farmers using more soybean meal, “this robust demand may be partly explained by an increase in the nation's poultry production.” Later in the article, Krumholz advanced the hog falsehood in even stronger terms, calling the swine fever “the primary reason China is buying less U.S. soybeans.” (Krumholz also included some bonus misleading information about pig farming, touting the safety of a pig feed additive called ractopamine that is often used in the U.S. but banned in much of the world because of safety concerns.)

Moving on from pigs, Krumholz turned to an even more nonsensical explanation of problems facing the U.S. soybean industry by attempting to compare the current situation with the heavy price drop that hit soybeans several years ago, noting “The drop in soybean prices because of the trade war is nothing compared to the drop in soybean prices that occurred in 2014.” This comparison is misleading -- while the drop in prices in 2014 was more precipitous, overall soybean prices in 2019 are weaker than they were in 2014:

US soybean prices 2013 - present

U.S. Soybean prices, 2013 - present

And more importantly, the factors behind the price drops are entirely different because of different conditions on the ground. In 2014, soybean farmers planted a record crop, and then good weather in the U.S. led to a soybean glut and a subsequent price drop. By comparison, in 2019, many parts of the U.S. where soybeans are grown had a historically wet spring and yield is expected to be down in the U.S. (which theoretically should be a good thing for soybean prices, though a corresponding price increase has yet to materialize).

Finally, Krumholz partly blamed farmers themselves for their financial problems, writing that “too many farmers took on too much debt, dangerously overextending themselves,” after being enticed by Obama-era monetary policies that kept interest rates low. While farm debt has been a growing issue for years -- especially since 2013 when crop gluts started driving prices and profitability down -- that doesn’t excuse Trump for making a bad situation worse with his out-of-control trade war.

Despite his continuing trade dispute with China, Trump remains relatively popular with U.S. farmers -- although there are signs their support is beginning to fall. The Federalist is attempting to assist Trump with this problem through disingenuous arguments that demonstrate a profound lack of respect for U.S. farmers.