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Cousins Ryan and Wade Glaser are fourth-generation family farmers who work fertile land in the Willamette Valley first planted by their great-grandfather. They have 1,300 acres near Lebanon, growing mostly grass seed, but also perennial rye grass, peas, white clover, some fescue, flax, soft white wheat and canola.

The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t be a farmer, the saying goes.

But lately, farmers are feeling a lot of uncertainty and anxiety caused by ongoing trade disputes. Agriculture has been the target of retaliatory tariffs, and export markets have been affected.

“The way the news has been the last six months, it definitely puts a question of what next year’s crops should be,” Ryan Glaser said. “With the uncertainty of not knowing what the future tariffs are, it definitely affects our strategy.”

Glaser and other mid-valley farmers, as well as interest groups representing crops and commodities grown here, are seeing and feeling the impact of ongoing trade disputes, particularly with China.

Glaser considered planting more soft white wheat. But China quit buying U.S. wheat four months ago.

“I can’t budget for next year,” Glaser said. “With high tariffs and small markets, it won’t be economical.”

Even as the Trump administration recently announced $12 billion in government payouts to farmers hurt by retaliatory tariffs, most in the agriculture industry seem wary. It’s likely that the bulk of those programs will benefit soybean growers in the Midwest, with little help for Oregon farmers.

“In years past, with relief efforts and farm bills, they don’t have a great direct impact on us, especially here in the valley,” Glaser said.

Still, he welcomed the news because of the possible trickle-down effect it could have. But what farmers say they really want is open markets to export their goods. International trade is crucial to the future of Oregon agriculture. And no one likes being caught in the dispute between President Donald Trump and China.

Export markets

Gail Greenman, director of national affairs with the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the effects of high tariffs are beginning to show, from disrupted markets to higher costs and lower profits for Oregon producers.

Being on the West Coast, the Pacific Rim is Oregon’s primary export market.

“Where we are hit is wheat and dairy,” Greenman said, but also fresh fruits and vegetables and nuts. “We are concerned about all of our farmers.”

Greenman said if a market is lost, even if it's temporary, there’s no guarantee it will come back. Many markets took years, even decades, to establish.

“We are always interested in expanding markets for the products we grow,” Greenman said. “It’s some of the best in the world and we’re proud of it.”

Greenman said the Farm Bureau welcomes government programs that provide even temporary relief to farmers. The administration said it plans to release details about the farm payments around Labor Day.

“We don’t know how this is going to play out,” she said. “We haven’t been told.”

China won’t buy wheat

Oregon produces more than 50 million bushels of wheat each year, worth about $185 million, with 90 percent sold on the export market. Oregon wheat flows together with wheat from around the Pacific Northwest and is shipped to Asia.

China isn’t among the biggest customers for Oregon wheat. But when China quit buying all U.S.-grown wheat four months ago as the first round of tariffs went into effect, Oregon wheat growers took notice, said Blake Rowe, CEO of the industry group Oregon Wheat.

“Tariffs have affected us,” Rowe said. “Chinese customers are not buying.”

Already, it’s reduced the overall volume of wheat sales. But Rowe said it’s too soon to say how much it will cost.

Rowe said a lot of growers have mixed feelings about tariffs. They are worried about losing markets. They also recognize that something should be done to address trade issues.

Wheat is among the products listed in the government’s Market Facilitation Program as part of the $12 billion in assistance that would provide payments to producers who are dealing with disrupted markets or surplus commodities. Wheat growers also could benefit from the smallest of the three programs in the administration’s plan that would help to fund trade promotion.

Rowe said it’s no surprise that trading partners have targeted agriculture for tariffs.

“They know it’s important to the U.S. and we’re a vocal constituency,” he said.

Seeking solutions

Polly Owen, director of Oregon’s Hazelnut Industry Office, said tariffs are nothing new for the state’s hazelnut growers. Tariffs have always been high on U.S. hazelnuts shipped to China, while other nuts and product from other countries had lower or no tariffs. So the industry developed a workaround by shipping nuts to other countries first.

“It’s expensive. But we have gone through that as an industry in order to get some product into China,” Owen said.

Hazelnut growers have been vocal participants in recent trade negotiations. Oregon has sent a delegation to Washington, D.C., and the White House. The Chinese consulate general even visited Oregon at the invitation of hazelnut growers to learn about the industry.

“We take every opportunity to get our voice heard,” Owen said.

The effects of the most recent tariffs haven’t been felt just yet because the hazelnut harvest is still a few months away. Owen said the impact may also be somewhat mitigated by the fact that a lot of growers don’t have trees that are mature enough to be producing high yields. It takes two of five years before a tree begins producing, and initial crops tend to be small.

Most of the state’s hazelnut expansion began after 2008, including in Benton and Linn counties. A decade ago, the two counties accounted for 8 percent of the total acreage in Oregon. According to the most recent figures, that had jumped to 18 percent of the state’s total by 2017.

Already, upward of 80 percent of hazelnut exports end up in China, even with high tariffs. That’s one reason Owen said the industry is seeking a durable trade deal.

“A lasting solution that is good for both countries, that is what we’re after,” Owen said.

Frustration, anticipation

Drew Johnson and his wife’s family run an “average size” dairy in south Marion County, with 500 cows. They are part of the Darigold cooperative, and most of the milk is processed as fluid and sold domestically. But when milk plants shut down, some of the milk gets dried and shipped to Asia.

Even though most mid-valley dairies are producing domestic milk, they are still affected by the tariffs because of milk’s complicated pricing structure, Johnson said. Milk prices have been low, and feed costs, particularly soybean prices, have been inconsistent.

“It is frustrating when government changes affect a business because there’s nothing you can do,” he said.

Dairy and milk were included in two of the three programs to help farmers, the Market Facilitation Program, and the Food Purchase and Distribution Program, which buys surplus commodities.

After the programs were announced, Johnson talked to the Oregon Dairy Farmers representative.

“He said it’s a little early to tell what they might do,” Johnson said. “If it works, great.”

But Johnson doesn’t want to work for subsidies. He believes the American farmer is primed to be a world leader in agriculture.

“We have a competitive advantage to produce food in America,” he said.

In 2014, milk had a record-breaking year fueled by international sales, including to China.

“That’s a huge market, piles of customers,” Johnson said. “That’s what everybody’s been waiting for.”

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Rebecca Barrett, a mid-valley freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to InBusiness.

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