North Dakota leaders offer mixed reactions on Trump 'handout' to farmers hit by trade disputes

BISMARCK -- North Dakota agriculture and political leaders offered mixed reactions Tuesday, July 24, to the Trump administration's plans for up to $12 billion in aid meant to help farmers weather a storm of international trade disputes.
Monte Peterson holds a growing soybean pod near Valley City Friday, July 13, 2018. John Hageman / Forum News Service
Monte Peterson holds a growing soybean pod near Valley City Friday, July 13, 2018. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK - North Dakota agriculture and political leaders offered mixed reactions Tuesday, July 24, to the Trump administration's plans for up to $12 billion in aid meant to help farmers weather a storm of international trade disputes.

The assistance will go into effect in September, months after President Donald Trump ordered Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to prepare some options, the Washington Post reported. The package's target commodities include soybeans, a major North Dakota export on which China slapped retaliatory tariffs earlier this month.

The tariffs came in response to $34 billion worth of duties the Trump administration placed on Chinese products.

The aid programs include payments to producers of soybeans, sorghum, corn, wheat, cotton, dairy and hogs, along with purchases of unexpected commodity surpluses and efforts to develop new export markets, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

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North Dakota Farmers Union President Mark Watne welcomed Tuesday's announcement but said "it's a far cry from the damage that's being caused by these low commodities." Pete Hanebutt, the North Dakota Farm Bureau's public policy director, hesitated to comment on the aid package Tuesday afternoon until he learned more about it.

Jeff Mertz, president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, hadn't read up on the program's details but said it appeared to be a sign Trump was looking out for farmers.

"It can be a positive thing to help with the short-term pain," he said.

The announcement came hours after Trump tweeted that tariffs "are the greatest!" He suggested they're being used as negotiation leverage for better trade deals.

The persisting trade tensions have provided Democrats a line of attack against Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, who's challenging Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp this fall. Cramer has been more defensive of the administration's policies, although he has expressed a distaste for tariffs.

Hours after news outlets reported the administration's pending program, Heitkamp announced she had introduced legislation to extend eligibility for direct financial assistance to farmers hit by retaliatory tariffs imposed on their exports. She said her bill would come at "no additional cost" while Trump's plan will only scratch the surface of farmers' losses.

"North Dakota's farmers and ranchers don't want a handout - they want access to markets to sell their goods," she said in a statement that called on the Trump administration to "give up this misguided trade war."

Cramer testified before the U.S. Trade Representative's office during a public hearing Tuesday, where he welcomed "strong defensive actions" against China's "unfair trade practices" that he argued previous administrations have failed to curtail. But he acknowledged China's retaliatory tariffs have hit farmers and manufacturers in his state.

"For our farmers to be successful, we need to grow, not shrink, our markets, and I urge President Trump to engage directly with China's President Xi Jinping and negotiate an agreement before it is too late for our farmers," Cramer said in prepared remarks.

In a statement, Cramer welcomed the assistance package but offered a caveat: "At the end of the day we want trade not aid." He hoped “free, fair and reciprocal trade is in our near future.”

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he's not a "fan" of tariffs but advocated for improved trade deals. He emphasized the aid announced Tuesday is meant to be a temporary measure.

"I don't think our farmers and ranchers long-term want these programs. What they want is access to markets," Hoeven said in an interview. "They can compete with anybody if we can get free and fair trade. This is about helping them until we get there."