What Trade War? Trump Heartland Sees Record Farm Sales to China

Measured by the bushel, the U.S.-China relationship has never been stronger.

Through the trade war and open hostilities at the highest political levels, pig farmers in China and crop farmers in the U.S. have become increasingly interdependent. Already America’s biggest customer of soybeans and sorghum, for this season China bought an unprecedented 11.2 million metric tons of corn, up nearly 1,300% compared with pre-trade-war purchases.

For the moment, both sides seem happy. The American imports have helped China feed its hog herd, which is recovering faster than expected after the African swine fever outbreak created a shortage of the country’s most staple protein. Meanwhile, U.S. farm profits are at a seven-year high, riding China’s demand and additional support from federal aid to agriculture.

China’s bought nearly 30 million metric tons of U.S. soybeans, the most for this point in the season since 1991 and 57% of America’s export sales. For sorghum, which is also a substitute for corn, China accounts for 80% of sales. Corn purchases, once negligible, rocketed to almost 30%.

But the deeper reliance is tenuous. As the trade war showed, that market can quickly evaporate, and experts warn that any number of geopolitical events – an incident in the South China Sea, for example, or further activity in Hong Kong – could end with another chill on Chinese imports.

“American agriculture has to be careful of putting too many eggs in the China basket,” said Tom Vilsack, who served as Agriculture Secretary from 2009 to 2017 and has emerged as a leading candidate for the position under President-elect Joe Biden. “I think the lesson that should be learned from the last couple of years is the need for American agriculture to continue to diversify so there’s always somewhere else the products can go, other than the storage bins.”