U.S. agriculture had the upper hand when it came to trade with China. Then President Donald Trump made good on his promise to address the overall trade imbalance.
U.S. agriculture is winning no more.
A new UC Davis study lays out the dire specifics, and California growers can back it up with stories of their own frustrations.
Some of them were at Murray Family Farms, east of Bakersfield, on Thursday for a discussion about Trump's tariff war with China and other nations. The meeting was facilitated by the nonpartisan Farmers For Free Trade and the California Farm Bureau Federation.
"These games we play do have long-term consequences," said Brian Kuehl, executive director of the free trade organization.
Candidate Trump had much to say on the campaign trail about America's trade imbalance with the world and he acted on it almost immediately after moving into the White House. In one of his first executive orders, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement among Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Vietnam and seven other Pacific Rim countries intended to serve as a counterweight to often-fraught trade with China.
"It was a terrible move for agriculture," Kuehl said.'
But then it got worse. Eighteen months later, Trump's tariff war with China and others has U.S. agriculture in a tailspin.
"He called our trade with China a bad deal," Kuehl said. "We in agriculture knew that wasn't true. U.S. agriculture wins every time, every year."
Not anymore. A new study by the Agricultural Issues Center and Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis puts dollar figures on the tariff war's impacts.
The study put the trade losses for 10 commodities alone — almonds, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, apples, oranges, raisins, sour cherries, sweet cherries and table grapes — at $2.64 billion per year (including nearly $1.6 billion just for almonds, Kern County's number two crop). The loss from diverting those commodities to receptive alternative markets came to $3.34 billion per year.
Harmeet Dhindsa, purchasing manager for the Bakersfield-based exporter Infinity 8 International Trade LLC, portrayed the situation from a ground-floor perspective.
Last year, Infinity 8 — which Dhindsa described as a medium-sized exporter — shipped 10,000 11-pound cartons of cherries to buyers in Shanghai, China. This year Infinity 8 shipped 240.
Last year Infinity 8 shipped 76,410 50-pound cartons of Valencia oranges to Shanghai. This year Infinity 8 shipped 3,240.
Last year at this time Infinity 8 had shipped 44,036 11-pound cartons of plums to Shanghai. In 2018, year-to-date, the company has shipped 170.
Those losses may never fully be recouped, he said, not if Infinity 8's experience with China in 2013-14 is an indication. That year U.S. navel oranges developed a mold problem that prompted Chinese officials to reject shipments from this country.
"We had to sit out of the China market," Dhindsa said. "We were able to get back into that market after about 12 months, but by that time China had started to consume more of their own domestic product and they were buying navel oranges from Egypt, South Africa, Spain .... So we lost market share for our navel oranges just because we were out for a year. And we still haven't gotten it back. We never will.
"And it's same here (with the tariff war), but with so many more commodities. It's worse than what people think."
John Moore of Arvin-based Moore Farms said the repercussions go well beyond trade relationships.
"A lot of us kind of have our heads in the sand," he said. "How is this going to affect land values and tax (revenue) for the county?"
Agriculture's impact is big in other ways. According to Farmers for Free Trade:
Neither of Bakersfield's congressional representatives attended the meeting but both sent staff members.