REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. — Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told Minnesota farmers he hopes the next round of trade talks with China bring an end to a simmering trade war that has created way too much anxiety in farm country.
But he put the blame squarely on the Chinese, defending President Trump's tariffs that have led to retaliation by that Asian superpower.
"President Trump would love to have trade resolution, but you can’t deal with a nation -- the number two world economy -- that cheats and steals," Secretary Perdue told reporters, after appearing at a forum at Farmfest, an annual festival two hours southwest of the Twin Cities.
It came a day after the Chinese announced they would halt new purchases of US farm products in retaliation to President Trump's threat of new tariffs on Chinese imports.
"The ball's in China’s court. We had made great progress up until April when the hardliners in China got a hold of President Xi and they backtracked and reneged on several provisions regarding agricultural purchases."
Rep. Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Ag Committee, said the trade war is only one of the reasons the Chinese demand for soybeans has fallen. He said more than half of that nation's pigs have been destroyed by African Swine Fever, so China doesn't need as much soybean hog feed.
"I think we’re facing some tough sledding this winter," Rep. Peterson explained.
"I think we’re going to have some people having a tough time getting financed and I’m not blaming that on anybody. It’s just the reality of where we’re at."
Peterson hosted a listening session featuring Perdue, and Minnesota's four freshmen members of Congress -- Reps. Angie Craig, Dean Phillips, Pete Stauber and Jim Hagedorn.
They heard about a wide-range of issues, ranging from the trade war to small refineries being exempted from ethanol requirements, to the escalating struggles of the dairy industry. But uncertainty about exports to China was a big topic.
"This is causing long-term devastating damage not only farmers but rural communities," Gary Wertish, a Renville farmer who heads the Minnesota Farmers Union, told Perdue.
He said it could take years to rebuild the export markets that are being lost.
"The president’s go-it-alone approach is really what’s backfiring."
Craig, who's also a member of the Ag Committee, agreed China needs to play fair when it comes to trade. But she also cautioned that farmers are at their wits end.
"Mister Secretary I’m rooting for you and the administration to be successful, but I just want to tell you I’m not sure how much longer our farmers can wait," Craig remarked. "The trade assistance does not make them whole."
The federal payments to farmers who sustained losses due to falling crop prices is known as the Market Facilitation Program.
Minnesota growers have overwhelmingly said they'd rather sell their crops at a fair price than get government aid.
"Any farmer would rather have a good crop at a fair price than get a government check," Perdue acknowledged. "The president understands that, but he also understands farmers have borne a disproportionate share of the retaliatory action of China."
Perdue said the silver lining to the African Swine Fever outbreak is that China may end up looking to buy more American hogs and pork.