Trump’s trade war is killing Northwest fruit farms
Babson Blaine grows apples, pears and cherries in the Hood River Valley and the mid-Columbia region with her husband and daughter.
As the third and fourth generations to raise apples here in the mid-Columbia region, my family and I are losing patience with President Donald Trump and his trade war. Surely, we are not the only Northwest fruit farmers who feel like collateral damage in the president’s dealings with China and other countries. Do we get together and whine, as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue feebly quipped not long ago before an audience of farmers? Sorry, but we are much too busy juggling harsh new tariffs and immigration sanctions while trying to produce fruit that millions of Americans and foreign consumers rely on.
Along with my husband, and now our daughter, I have raised apples, pears and cherries for nearly 50 years on land first cultivated in 1908 by my grandfather, who left his privileged East Coast nest to plant some of the first apple trees in the Upper Hood River Valley.
With Grannies, Honey Crisp and Galas ripening in our orchards, we are among the 7,500 U.S. apple growers who collectively produce more than 240 million bushels of fruit. Wholesale revenue of apples, grown in 32 states, hovers around $4 billion.
That figure alone may make us easy to overlook. Compared to a Fortune 500 company, we are an agricultural pipsqueak. Most apple orchards average just 100 acres. But as family farmers, we are in many ways the heart and soul of American agriculture. Apples, after all, hold a near-iconic place in American culture. New York City is not known as the Big Banana, and Steve Jobs did not name his company after the pomegranate.
President Trump may believe, as he has stated, that trade wars are easy to win, but the truth is, his tariffs are killing us. Like so many Northwest farmers, we are cutting back wherever we can. We are not buying new equipment, we are not even fixing old equipment. We have four-wheel drive tractors that are now two-wheel drive because we can’t afford to repair them. We have fewer workers, and we are cutting all our workers to a seven-hour day, down from eight-to-nine hours per day. We are not planting new trees, and we are not modernizing our orchards. All the packing houses have updated their plants. But the orchards have fallen behind, technologically.
The issue is both highly personal — this is our family business, after all — and not personal at all, for we are in no sense alone in this mess. Since the start of this century, U.S. fruit consumption has been steadily declining, making foreign markets more
critical for U.S. growers. Currently, about one in four apples grown in the U.S. is exported to a foreign market. Mexico, Canada and India were the top three destinations for apple exports for 2017-18. In just three years since the U.S. apple market received full, reciprocal access to the market in China in 2015, that country grew to be our number six export market.
But trade tensions in 2018 burst the bubble on China as a growing market for U.S. apples. Exports across the board fell 27% from the previous year.
China, responding to President Trump’s tariff practices, has imposed 50% tariffs on U.S. apples.
Consumers in India traditionally have welcomed fruit from the United States. The Asian subcontinent is partial to lush red apples, and we purposely raised a premium block of red delicious apples intended for that market. Retaliatory tariffs are killing that market, too. Pre-tariffs, we could expect $250-$300 per bin for these red delicious apples. After the tariffs, we were looking at $21 a bin — which, by the way, contains about 950 pounds of apples. Not only do we lose the premium prices international customers pay, but diverting the excess to the U.S. market creates an oversupply that pushes prices down to unsustainably low levels.
The president’s trade war has forced us to divert these beautiful apples to the juice processors, the lowest valued sector of the fruit market.
Quietly, foreclosures and farm sales are rippling through our industry. We, like others, are struggling to find our way by reorganizing operations. No one can afford to continue production when expenses exceed income.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that 2019 will be a bang-up year for apples, the ninth largest crop in history. Where will we sell them? And for how much? How will we pay our workers? How will we afford the diesel fuel for our farm equipment?
With declining income almost guaranteed, how will we pay off the bank loans that keep most U.S. farmers afloat?
Even those of us whose families have been at this for a century don’t know the answers.