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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

U.S. farmers have been given a bit of a lifeline by the "phase one" U.S.-China trade deal, but without concrete specifics on what China will purchase there remains some worry about how they will be able to support themselves and their farms in 2020.

Background: Farmers had a rough 2019, even with a hefty subsidy package provided to them by the Trump administration as relief from the trade war.

  • Chapter 12 bankruptcies rose 24% over the previous year, and farm debt is projected to hit a record high $416 billion.
  • Overall, farm income increased last year, but without the $14.5 billion tranche of farm subsidies delivered by the government, U.S. farm income would have fallen by about $5 billion from its already low 2018 level.

Why it matters: It was the highest level of subsidies in 14 years, and "definitely not the normal," Farm Bureau chief economist John Newton told Axios in November.

What's next: It’s unclear whether U.S. farmers will get more government aid in 2020, but experts say more farmers are becoming financially dependent on the subsidies, Beth Burger of the Columbus Dispatch wrote in November.

  • "'Trump money' is what we call it," Missouri farmer Robert Henry told NPR of the package that totaled $28 billion over two years. "It helped a lot."
  • “If the government doesn’t pay us, we’re done,” North Dakota farmer Justin Sherlock told Reuters last week.

The big picture: Many are unsure of what crops to plant because no specific details have yet been released on the deal, Reuters reported, noting that farmers in export-dependent regions say they can’t continue to sell their crops for below the cost of production without additional subsidies.

Between the lines: It's hard to handicap the odds of a third round of farm subsidies because the Trump administration essentially pulled the money for the first two rounds "out of thin air," NPR's Dan Charles reported.

  • "[The USDA] decided that an old law authorizing a USDA program called the Commodity Credit Corp. already gave it the authority to spend this money."

The bottom line: The world's agriculture supply chains have already changed and American farmers aren't entirely sure where they fit or what products China will be buying.

  • China has deepened ties with Brazil and Argentina, and its need for U.S. exports like soy and sorghum to feed livestock is waning because of a deadly pig disease experts estimate has killed about half the world’s largest hog herd.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Oct 6, 2020 - World

Exclusive: Top German official hushed up report on China’s influence

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A high-ranking German official suppressed a sensitive intelligence report in 2018 on China’s growing influence in Germany out of fear it would damage business ties with China, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Business interests have long shaped Germany’s relationship with China, to the detriment of human rights concerns and even national security. 

7 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.