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U.S. farmers could really use some help

Illustration of a cow with markings in the shape of a neutral face
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Investors have been basking in the glow of the "phase one" trade deal between the U.S. and China, but farmers, who are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of the agreement, have reason to be wary, experts say.

What's happening: U.S. farmers have been suffering this year. Chapter 12 bankruptcies have risen 24% over the previous year, and farm debt is projected to hit a record high $416 billion.

  • While farm income is expected to reach its highest total since 2014, 40% of that income will come from trade assistance, disaster assistance, the farm bill and insurance indemnities, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

What we're hearing: That's "definitely not the normal," Farm Bureau chief economist John Newton tells Axios.

  • The $28 billion bailout package for farmers that President Trump signed earlier this year has "increased the percentage to a level we’ve not seen in a while."

The big picture: Newton says the amount of U.S. agriculture buys from China that Trump has cited — $40 billion to $50 billion — would go a long way toward getting farmers "back to a level playing field," along with the revamped NAFTA deal. But, analysts have expressed some doubts about the reality of such figures.

  • "Even if the deal is signed, it’s unlikely that either side could deliver on its bloated promises to sharply increase U.S. farm exports to China to $50 billion annually, or anywhere near that total," Peterson Institute senior fellow Jeffrey Schott wrote Monday.
  • Schott, a former Treasury Department international trade official, also noted that "Trump has many times announced Chinese plans to buy U.S. farm products like soybeans, only to pull back and charge Beijing with reneging."

Between the lines: Chinese imports of U.S. agricultural products totaled $24 billion in 2017 and peaked at $29 billion in 2013, according to U.S. government data. Imports fell to $9 billion last year as a result of the trade war.

  • Increasing imports to $40 billion would require removing a number of major technical and political hurdles.
  • These include China changing its laws banning hormones and drug residues in meat and reversing already made investments in Brazilian soybean shipments, industry analysts told Reuters in October.

The bottom line: The trade deal, which is supposed to be signed in a matter of weeks, is largely dependent on China agreeing to meet that $40 billion to $50 billion metric. If the deal falls apart, it's likely Trump will again escalate the trade war.

Go deeper: China is driving milk prices higher

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