In retaliation for $34 million in tariffs leveled by the Trump administration on Chinese imports, the Asian country and largest trading partner for Nebraska agriculture retaliated by slapping a 25 percent duty on soybeans two weeks ago.

Wednesday, soybean cash prices slid to $7.23 per bushel, according to Farmers Cooperative in Dorchester — their lowest level in nearly a decade — before rebounding to $7.64 per bushel Thursday.

At the close of the markets Friday, the price for soybeans held at $7.49 per bushel, down from $9.77 recorded by Farmers Cooperative on March 1.

"The last several weeks have been tough, and we've been in a pretty good spiral for the last week," said Richard Bartek, who farms soybeans near Ithaca in Saunders County.

Before the tariff, Chinese buyers spent $1 billion scooping up 51 percent of the soybeans grown in the state in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, outpacing exports to Mexico and Canada.

Overall, U.S. farmers sold $14 billion in soybeans and soybean products to China last year, the U.S. Soybean Export Council said, but it expects to fall short of that figure this year as prices have dropped more than $2 per bushel for the roughly 89 billion acres planted.

While the plummeting price of soybeans is sounding alarms nationally, Victor Bohuslavsky, the executive director of the Nebraska Soybean Board, said there is no need for farmers to panic.

"This isn't our time to be selling a lot of soybeans," he said. "We're hoping the trade situation is all settled by September, so when we start harvesting the new crop, the Chinese market is open for us."

Should neither the U.S. nor China drop tariffs before combines rev up, Bohuslavsky said shifting global markets could give Nebraska soybean farmers, who planted an estimated 250 million acres this year, an opening to salvage the season.

"If Brazil wants to ship all their soybeans to China, then all (Brazil's) other customers will need to buy from somewhere," he said, adding dependable U.S. farmers who produce quality soybeans could fill those gaps.

Cory Walters, an assistant professor of ag economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who specializes in grain economics, concurred with Bohuslavsky's assessment, saying soybean farmers "are not backed into a corner quite yet."

"They do have time and they do have other policies that can help them out," he added. "There is some flexibility in their decision-making."

If the tariffs last until September, Walters said farmers could choose to store more of their soybeans until prices rebound, rather than sell them at potentially deflated prices. If that happens, farmers could deliver more corn at harvest.

Crop insurance, specifically revenue protection, which protects against yield loss created by hail, drought or other causes, as well as price loss created by market forces, will likely also play a part should the demand for U.S. soybeans remain low, Walters said.

Farmers who insured their soybean crop at 85 percent coverage could potentially get paid for any prices 15 percent below $10.19 per bushel, as set by the Risk Management Agency.

That would mean an $8.66 per bushel price, assuming the farmer saw yields to match  historical production, would trigger a payment to the farmer at harvest.

Bartek said farmers are used to absorbing the difficulties leveled by Mother Nature — too much rain in one spot, too little precipitation in another, hail, wind damage, pests and more — as well as some market pressure caused by striking longshoremen and other factors.

If prices remain significantly lower than previous years, the pain could be passed on to local businesses and manufacturers as farmers tighten their belts, choosing to buy used equipment rather than new or forgo some expenses altogether.

Still, the Soybean Checkoff Board member said he will give President Donald Trump "the benefit of the doubt," and will remain optimistic the escalating trade war is resolved before he and his neighbors take to their fields this fall.

The ongoing trade conflict was a conversation topic among the roughly 200 high school students attending the Nebraska Agricultural Youth Institute at UNL last week, according to a counselor at the institute.

Grant Dahlgren, a college delegate at the institute who will be a sophomore ag economics major at UNL this fall, said some panelists and speakers at the weeklong event touched upon the tariffs on commodities as an issue producers have to navigate in an increasingly complex and interconnected global economy.

Speaking personally, Dahlgren, 19, said Thursday he doesn't believe the retaliatory tariffs initiated by China will be a long-term issue for Nebraska farmers, even though there might be some short-term pain.

"I think what Trump is trying to do is get other countries to see what they've been doing to us through these tariffs," Dahlgren said. "He's putting them in a situation to make them realize what's going on."

Farmers are becoming increasingly diversified in their operations, the Bertrand native said, raising row crops while also running livestock or feedlot operations. The younger generation of farmers and aspiring farmers understand that is the way to be successful, Dahlgren added.

"Our generation and the ag industry has to be optimistic," he said. "You can't go into something with a negative outlook and expect to be in the green."

Bartek and other soybean farmers say they share that optimism of Trump's strategy centered around fair trade practices, although they're keeping an eye on the market and their bottom line.

"The president in the past has said he recognizes the importance of ag and what it does for the U.S.," he said. "I'm not complaining, just hoping and praying for the best.

"I'm on that line with a lot of farmers."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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