Kansas farmers panic after latest trade escalation with China

Trump's trade rhetoric continues to hurt rural communities.

ABILENE, KANSAS–– Sorghum farmer in field CREDIT: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
ABILENE, KANSAS–– Sorghum farmer in field CREDIT: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Kansas farmers and lawmakers reacted with anger and concern following another round of tariffs levied on U.S. exports by China, this time aimed at sorghum, which is most commonly used in animal feed.

China’s Ministry of Commerce announced blistering new tariffs on Tuesday, slamming sorghum imported from the United States with a 178.6 percent duty, a charge set to take effect immediately. While sorghum is grown throughout the U.S. South and parts of the Midwest, Kansas is the country’s top sorghum producer. The state has sent more than $400 million worth of sorghum to China in recent years and officials worry the tariffs will have an outsized impact.

“The announcement of China’s intent to place a nearly 179 percent tariff on U.S. sorghum will have a devastating effect on the Kansas agriculture industry and thus the Kansas economy,” said Gov. Jeff Colyer (R), reacting to the news, adding that the state has exported nearly $146 million in sorghum to China over the last three years.

“Any effort to restrict the ability to export sorghum,” said Colyer, “directly hits the pocketbook of farmers across Kansas.”


“Foreign market access is critical to Kansas agriculture at all times, but especially when our farmers are dealing with challenges brought on by low commodity prices and extreme weather conditions,” Colyer continued. “Instead of targeting fairly traded U.S. exports, China should immediately stop its unfair trading practices.”

Jesse McCurry, executive director for the Kansas Grain Sorghum Association, expressed similar sentiments.

“It’s extremely frustrating and very disappointing,” McCurry said. “Half of Kansas sorghum or more was going to China, and that probably stops, at least for now.”

China argues that the move is necessary to protect Chinese farmers. Sorghum is popular throughout China and is used to feed farm animals in addition to creating alcohol. The country says U.S. sorghum is being unfairly subsidized in China, disadvantaging Chinese competitors. China launched an investigation into costs associated with the product in February. The imposed tariff is meant to serve as a “deposit” while the probe goes forward.

That investigation has been seen more widely as a retaliation against President Trump, who has escalated trade tensions with China and other countries over the past few months. In March, the White House announced plans to impose high tariffs on U.S. steel and aluminum imports, with immediate implications for the European Union and China. The EU responded with a list of its own, notable for the U.S. items and regions it singled out. Among the products were Kentucky bourbon and North Carolina tobacco — striking at the same rural, conservative areas Trump has promised to revive.


Republican lawmakers reacted angrily to the list and the White House ultimately announced a temporary reprieve for the EU. Other areas were less lucky. Despite desperate pleas from dozens of trade organizations, the White House has threatened up to $150 billion in import duties on Chinese products, with no sign of letting up.

China has responded in kind, hitting the U.S. heartland in the process. Earlier this month the country announced retaliatory tariffs against more than 100 U.S. items, including soybeans, with stark implications for U.S. farmers.

Sorghum is another product on which many rural communities depend — especially in Kansas. According to AgriCensus, sorghum acreage has been in decline for years, shrinking more than a million acres every marketing year. And most of the final product isn’t going to U.S. consumers: China purchased almost 89 percent of last marketing year’s sorghum haul.

“They came over here and bought our product and liked our product. And we were looking forward to selling more of this product to them in the future,” sorghum farmer Kent Winter told local news outlet KWCH. Winter, whose family has been growing sorghum for around 60 years, expressed worry over escalating trade tensions.

“It’s a big part of my life,” he said of sorghum farming. “It’s a big part of the rotation here. Dad started raising it along with the other neighbors back in the late ’50s as an alternative crop to rotate with wheat. In addition to that, they were feeding livestock.”

McCurry of the Kansas Grain Sorghum Association said the organization intends to fight the tariff escalation.

“We’re going to fight for markets. We’ll pursue legal options,” he said. “We’ll continue to rely upon our strong political partners in the state and in Washington and we’ll do what we can.”


It’s unclear that the White House will be open to changing course. Instead, Trump is reportedly eyeing other options, like the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), a Depression-era program created to help struggling farmers. But Republican lawmakers have said that won’t be enough to help those impacted by tariffs, in addition to arguing that the endeavor misses the point altogether.

“Farmers want to be productive,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) in response to CCC rumors. “They want their goods and commodities going to new and developing markets.”

While rural lawmakers criticize the White House, residents seem to be losing faith in the president.

“I know that the administration is very much aware that rural America had a lot to do with putting President Trump in office,” Winter, the Kansas farmer, said. “But I’m not sure anybody can change his mind.”

Tariffs aren’t the only source of tension brewing between U.S. farming country and the Trump administration. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from farming states accused Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt of granting waivers to oil refineries. Officials said the scandal-plagued Pruitt, already under fire for his expenses, has undermined commitments to biofuel producers and farmers in favor of multi-million dollar oil refinery giants.