By P.J. Huffstutter and Steve Holland
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday defended his tough trade policies in front of thousands of farmers who have suffered because of his trade war with China, disappointing some who had hoped to hear a plan for a swift resolution.
Trump dedicated much of his speech to explaining why he believes the United States needs a wall on its southern border, in his second consecutive visit to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention. He also said his trade policies would deliver long-term benefits for the American heartland.
U.S. farmers, numbering some 3.2 million, have been reliable Trump supporters, despite struggling financially since Beijing imposed a tariff on imports of U.S. soybeans in July in retaliation for Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods. China has also implemented duties on other U.S. farm goods, including pork and grain sorghum.
“I would like to have known that there was a fix that was going to be done immediately and that he could have told us about it today,” Illinois grain farmer Robert Klemm said at the convention in New Orleans.
China bought about $12 billion worth of U.S. soy in 2017, but mostly shifted purchases to Brazil last year because of the trade dispute.
“With China, every year for many years we’re losing $375 billion. We’re working on that very strong. You see what’s going on. Doing very well,” Trump said at the convention, without providing specific details on the negotiations.
“We’re turning all of that around with fair trade deals that put American farmers, ranchers, and in fact America, first,” he said.
Trump spoke as a partial government shutdown dragged into its 24th day. The shutdown has led to the closure of U.S. Department of Agriculture offices and delayed farmers’ applications for federal loans and an aid package meant to ease the pain caused by the trade war.
Trump did not address the delays in aid payments but praised how farmers remained loyal to him.
U.S. House Speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, said in a statement that Trump should “restore certainty” to farmers’ lives by signing legislation to fully reopen the USDA.
Farmers and others involved with agriculture “are not doing better than ever – despite the president’s claim. They are struggling because of plummeting prices, a tough farm economy and the damage of the administration’s trade brinkmanship, but President Trump refuses to re-open the Department of Agriculture,” Pelosi said.
KEPT HIS PROMISE
The United States needs to strike deals with trading partners soon to help farmers, said Brian Duncan, an Illinois crop and livestock producer and vice president of the Illinois Farm Bureau.
A landmark 11-country trade deal, a revamped version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), came into force in December without the United States after Trump pulled out of negotiations in 2017.
“When the president says that agriculture is getting better, I don’t think that’s the real world in agriculture today,” Duncan said at the convention. “But I hope that is our future.”
Trump authorized about $11 billion in aid payments to farmers hurt by trade fights last year, billing it as a promise kept to a key constituency.
The administration last week extended the deadline for aid applications because of processing delays caused by the shutdown over Trump’s demand that Congress fund a wall at the border with Mexico.
The USDA would like to reopen offices where farmers must submit applications for aid, and is working with the Office of Management and Budget, Secretary Sonny Perdue said on Fox Business Network on Monday.
Trump canceled a planned visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, next week, because of the government shutdown, but followed through on a pledge made last year to return to the farm convention.
“It’s clear he supports the farmers who are the ones who helped him get to where he is today,” said Westin Cobb, who raises cattle with his family in Louisiana and leads the state’s 4-H agriculture organization.
“He kept his promise to us to be here and that means something to farmers.”
(Reporting P.J. Huffstutter in New Orleans. Writing by Tom Polansek in Chicago and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Caroline Stauffer, Bill Berkrot and Rosalba O’Brien)