Trump tariffs prompt trade worries for N.D. soybean growers


A new set of Chinese tariffs won't hamstring North Dakota's economy, but they've left some experts wondering what happens next.

Monte Peterson is one of the biggest advocates for soybean farmers in the state, with top roles at the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association and the U.S. Soybean Export Council. He's watched over past weeks as saber-rattling has blossomed into what might be a trade war, with Chinese tariffs slapped on 128 American goods on Monday, including pork products and an array of fruits.

Experts say China's new tariffs won't have a major effect on the state's economy—for now.

Observers like Peterson are concerned that Monday's new tariffs could be early shots in a growing trade war that could sweep up their commodity, with worrisome results for producers and the local economy. Soybeans are a huge export from North Dakota, Peterson said, and more than two-thirds of the statewide crop is shipped to China.

"China imports more U.S. soybeans than all other countries combined, and so I oftentimes think that other people think, well, we can just shift our market to other places," Peterson said. "But when you have one player that has that large a volume, you can't just interrupt that trade or make changes in trading partners that would come quick enough to absorb that kind of volume."

The newly announced tariffs, Peterson said, are a response to President Donald Trump's recent announcement of new tariffs on aluminum and steel. Peterson lamented the administration's decision to use tariffs as a cudgel to even out trade imbalances with China when, he said, soybean crops offer an alternative.

"I think that there have been some statements that have been expressed that suggest, yes, our message is being heard," Peterson said. "Though as long as talk of tariffs and retaliation are in the mix of conversation, then I don't know that we're taking the positive steps that we need to."

The potential for a trade war left some wary in Washington, where even members of the president's party are concerned about a potentially bumpy road ahead.

"We are concerned that broad tariffs on steel and aluminum could cost American jobs and lead to retaliation by major trading partners that could harm other U.S. sectors, like agriculture and energy," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a prepared statement last month.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., remarked last month that "North Dakota's economy needs a trade war like a cow needs a hamburger."

For the moment, growing trade tensions offer more worries about the future than they do immediate damage to the economy.

Arik Spencer, president and CEO of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, said Canada and Mexico receive about 98 percent of the state's gas, oils and grains exports as well as 85 percent of the state's total exports. But it's soybean growers and planters with pulse crops—like dry beans and chickpeas—who might be worried, Spencer said.

"Our members ... don't view this initial set of tariffs as a big headline in itself," Spencer said. "It's where we go from here that could really impact North Dakota's economy, or have the ability to impact North Dakota's economy."


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