Gehrke: Utah farmers are reeling under Trump’s tariffs and the scorching drought

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ron Gibson is a sixth generation dairy farmer and president of the Utah Farm Bureau. Gibson was photographed at his Ogden farm, Green Acres Dairy, Wednesday Aug. 1, 2018.

Since 1869, the Gibson family has raised dairy cows in the pastures northwest of Ogden, not far from the Great Salt Lake.

“It’s about as challenging right now as it’s ever been in the history of our farm,” said Ron Gibson, co-owner of Green Acres Family Dairy.

And Gibson is not alone.

Across Utah, tariffs slapped on agricultural products in retaliation for President Donald Trump’s tariffs on foreign goods have the U.S. sliding toward a full-blown trade war.

On top of severe drought across the state, it’s a crushing one-two punch that is pushing many farmers — regardless of the crops or livestock they raise — to the brink.

Currently there are 160 dairy farms across Utah, said Gibson, who is president of the Utah Farm Bureau. This time next year, there could be as few as 100, he said. That’s nearly two out of every five dairy farms statewide that could cease operation.

“There’s no point doing it at a loss,” said Gibson. “Some of us are kind of stuck that way. We’re all-in when we build a new facility. And nobody is going to buy a dairy farm in Weber County. When we’re done, it’s all going to be turned into houses.”

Politically, it puts people like Gibson in a difficult spot. It’s true, he said, that farmers have been getting the raw end of trade deals for years and he appreciates what Trump is trying to do.

“I really feel like he’s trying to help us,” he said. “The problem is, we’ve stuck a stick of dynamite in the entire world [market] all at once. We’re not doing this as a surgeon would do it.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ron Gibson is a sixth generation dairy farmer and president of the Utah Farm Bureau. Gibson was photographed at his Ogden farm, Green Acres Dairy, Wednesday Aug. 1, 2018.

Trump has slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Mexico, China and the European Union. Those nations have responded in kind. China imposed retaliatory tariffs on a broad range of U.S. agricultural products, including apples, pork, soybeans, beef, corn and dairy products. Mexico is levying tariffs on pork, potatoes, cheeses and apples, to name a few.

It creates a domino effect, Gibson said. For example, Utah doesn’t really export apples to Asia, but Washington state does. With exports to China plummeting, the U.S. market is flooded and prices are falling.

Dairy farmers are the first to feel the impact, since they sell their product every day. Cattle ranchers, hog farmers, and others won’t feel the pain until they go to market later this year. But the pain will come.

And it will ripple through many sectors. A soybean producer, for example, who can’t export to China isn’t going to plant acres of worthless soybeans next year. Instead he might plant corn, which means more corn on the market and a drop in those prices, too.

Craig Laub grows hay on his farm in Iron County, which his father established when he came home from World War II. He sends some of his product to Japan and Taiwan and a little bit to China. But now, with China buying less hay from the United States, there is an oversupply. And dairy farmers who buy his hay, stung by the tariffs, are buying less.

As a result, the price of hay has dropped by 10 percent.

All of this, of course, comes on top of one of the worst drought years Utah has seen. In Weber County, Gibson said, farmers are getting about half their normal supply of water and are hoping what water they do have will last until September 1.

In Sanpete County, farmers ran out of surface water in reservoirs and creeks on June 1.

Trump is proposing $12 billion in aid to distressed farmers and Gibson was on a conference call last week with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and his top deputies to discuss the implementation of the program. But it’s hard to know at this point how much will make it to the farmers who are hanging on and how long it will take to filter down.

More than that, Gibson said, the farmers don’t want a bailout — they want a solution.

“In agriculture, I don’t know a single farmer who wants to rely on the government for their success,” Gibson said. “We’re independent people and we are trying to do everything we can to build our business and build our markets for our products. … Seeing the government in the middle of this is not what we like.”

The best way to solve this is for the president, who caused the problem in the first place, to drop his protectionist bravado and recognize his actions are hurting Americans. Until he does that — if he’s capable of doing that — farmers in Utah and elsewhere will continue to feel the pain.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.