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.

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