Pacific Northwest soybean shipments down as ND officials eye trade disputes

John Hageman
Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Soybean exports out of the Pacific Northwest, the primary destination for North Dakota’s crop, are down 40% this year amid continuing trade disputes with China.

The shipment figures, provided by the North Dakota Soybean Council, reflect a major drop in the current marketing year, which will end in the coming days. Harrison Weber, director of market development for the council, said it wasn’t clear how much of the outbound soybeans were originally from North Dakota, but he noted more than 70% of the state’s crop goes to the Pacific Northwest.

“It means there’s a lot more soybeans in storage in North Dakota, which means farmers aren’t selling the crop they’ve raised,” said Nancy Johnson, executive director of the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association.

Soybeans are a major crop for North Dakota, which has relied on China as a top export market. North Dakota was No. 4 in the country in total soybean acres planted and harvested in 2018, according to the council, while Cass County ranked as the No. 2 soybean producing county in the United States.

The U.S. and China have been locked in a trade war, with each side threatening and imposing tariffs on products shipped between the two countries. President Donald Trump blamed China for what he and others see as “unfair” trade practices.

The Trump administration last month unveiled a $16 billion farmer aid package meant to blunt effects of the trade war.

“When China put tariffs on USA Soybeans, it made them cost prohibitive for Chinese buyers,” Tom Wollin, a business development executive for the North Dakota Trade Office, wrote in an email. “Now farmers and elevators in North Dakota and the USA have to look for new markets to offer their crops.”

Members of North Dakota’s all-Republican congressional delegation have recently expressed worry about the ongoing spat. But they also welcomed a recently announced deal with Japan to open up that market to more U.S. agricultural goods.

Johnson said the loss of exports to China can’t easily be made up elsewhere.

“We have worked very hard to make sure that all the alternative markets are being explored, but it’s kind of a numbers game,” she said.

Leading farmer groups in North Dakota had widely differing outlooks for the ongoing trade war recently.

Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said optimism for a resolution with China is waning. He also expressed concern that trading opportunities may be permanently affected by the recent disputes.

“I think patience is getting really thin,” he said. “I’m hearing a lot more of that, just people very concerned that, ‘Maybe what I voted for wasn’t what I’m going to get.’”

But North Dakota Farm Bureau President Daryl Lies blamed House Democrats for stalling the ratification of a new North American trade deal, dubbed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. And he called it “ridiculous” to lay all of the blame for increases in farm loan delinquencies and bankruptcies on trade issues.

“Our members are still confident there’s going to be a better deal made (with China),” Lies said.