COLUMBUS — From his farm in southern Indiana, Dan Fleming is monitoring a potential trade war and other developments in Washington, D.C.
His concerns range from steel prices, to the international grain trade, to pesticide regulation.
With President Donald Trump issuing stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, Fleming and his farming neighbors in Bartholomew County are concerned that prices of farm equipment could soar.
The import tariffs – 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum – are exempt for Mexico and Canada.
“A lot of steel goes into a new $300,000 tractor,” said Fleming, 65, citing concerns from friends. “That’s a big expense for them. Not so much for guys like me, but it is for those guys.”
On their partially-wooded 33 acres near Columbus, he and his wife, Lynne, a retired teacher, operate Fleming Family Beef. They sell freezer beef to consumers.
A former sixth-grade science and social studies teacher, Fleming, 65, broadcasts farm reports on Indiana radio stations.
Trump’s tariffs are seemingly aimed at such targets as China, which led all countries in crude steel production in January with 67 million tons, compared to 6.8 million tons in the U.S., according to the World Steel Association.
But China accounts for only about 2 percent of U.S. steel imports — about 740,000 tons last year. That lags well behind Canada at 18 percent and the European Union at 21 percent.
“The other part of that is they (neighboring farmers) fear a trade war, even though our president says trade wars are easy to win and they’re good for us. I don’t quite understand that,” Fleming said.
His cattle are fed with corn. Increased corn production in China is hurting U.S. growers, he said.
The Chinese “are not importing corn anymore. That not only hurts the sale of corn but raises the price of crop producers’ inputs, like fertilizer is more expensive,” Fleming noted.
Agriculture provides a rare trade surplus for the U.S. economy, making it a potential target for tariff retaliation by the Chinese and others. In the 2017 fiscal year, U.S. agricultural exports totaled $140.5 billion, creating a $23.1 billion trade surplus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Farming is an economic bedrock of the Midwest, which accounts for about half of the United States’ agricultural output. Indiana ranked 10th in the nation in 2016 in receipts for farm commodities, raking in roughly $10 billion.
In early March, the American Soybean Association expressed fears that China could put restrictions on soybeans, considered America’s second most-valuable crop.
“If there is a trade war, it’s going to hurt soybean prices. ... There’s some concerns that that’s going to end up hurting us more than helping us,” Fleming said.
Sixty percent of soybeans grown in the United States are exported, with half -- $14 billion worth in 2016 -- going to China.
Aside from a potential tariff war, Fleming is deeply concerned Washington’s handling of other farm-related issues.
He’s particularly wary of the current management of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose regulations are often viewed as a thorn in the side of farmers.
Among controversies, the EPA has come under fire for keeping secret travel records of Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has been criticized for rolling back decades of regulations. For example, in 2015, the EPA proposed banning the pesticide Chlorpyrifos, but Pruitt delayed the decision until 2022.
Last fall, the EPA reached an agreement with manufacturers to minimize the potential for the herbicide Dicamba to drift and damage neighboring crops. The agreement, however, merely adds requirements to labels on Dicamba containers, including restricting use to certified applicators with special training and using the chemical during certain hours and when wind speeds are below 10 mph.
Fleming notes, however, that the rewriting of labels doesn’t fully protect farmers who work with herbicides.
“The administrator (Pruitt) is not doing the protective part,” he explained. “He’s not over-regulating farmers, but he’s not regulating chemical companies and not doing much of a job in educating people who use chemicals like Dicamba.”