Trump’s Trade Wars: How Steel and Aluminum Might Harm Hog Farmers

by Sam Jones

President Trump has been waging a trade war since early March, with China as his greatest adversary. Steel and aluminum manufacturing stood to benefit from these protectionist measures, but the U.S. agricultural sector is actually getting the raw end of the deal in this tit-for-tat dispute.

In the beginning of March, President Trump announced plans to place a 25% import tariff on all steel and a 10% import tariff on all aluminum. To follow through on his campaign promise of U.S. trade protectionism, the U.S. steel and aluminum manufacturing industry is the first group of intended beneficiaries. President Trump claims that unfair trade practices in other countries, namely China, have flooded the global market with these products, effectively lowering prices to uncompetitive levels.

The steel and aluminum manufacturing industry in the U.S. has seen a significant decline in jobs, with 135,000 people employed in the industry in 2000 compared to just over 83,000 in 2016, according to one source. However, industries that purchase steel and aluminum and rely on the current low prices actually employ far more people—6.5 million—than are employed on the manufacturing side. These industries include car manufacturers, beer companies, and the construction industry, to name a few. As a result, while these tariffs may be good news for a few tens of thousands of steel and aluminum manufacturers, over six million people employed by steel and aluminum buyers would likely be negatively impacted and possibly lose their jobs if production costs rise.

However, this only would have been the outcome if President Trump’s original plan to tax all steel and aluminum imports entering U.S. borders had become reality. The tariffs did go into effect at the beginning of April, but Canada and Mexico were immediately exempted from these trade restrictions. Before the tariffs had officially taken effect, the EU, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and South Korea were granted temporary exemptions from the tariffs as well.

These trade exemptions are essentially being granted to political allies of the United States who threatened strict and politically targeted tariffs of their own in retaliation. These tariffs would have been imposed on quintessential American products, like Wisconsin cheese and Kentucky bourbon, that are produced in red majority regions (Wisconsin is Paul Ryan’s home state).

Politically, exempting these countries is a good idea because of this potential backlash, but these exemptions also severely undermine the original intention of the steel and aluminum tariffs. Canada, the EU, South Korea, Mexico, and Brazil are the top five sources of steel and aluminum imports for the U.S., with over $900 million-worth of imports coming from Canada and the EU alone. So which steel and aluminum exporters are affected by this policy? In one word: China.

Just like the retaliatory measures threatened by the exempted countries, China has its own punitive measures in mind. The potential targets of China’s tariffs are major U.S. agricultural export commodities like pork, soybeans, sorghum, tobacco, wine, and nuts. These products are chosen for specific, political reasons. The international community is well-aware of how the structure of our government impacts elections results. They know which districts voted red and which ones swung blue, which means they know that to impact the voters in red districts, they can target the industries that fuel their livelihoods. For instance, China is the largest consumer of both the pork and tobacco that is produced in North Carolina. As it happens, North Carolina went to Trump in the 2016 election. Not only is China retaliating against protectionist trade measures, but it also seemingly intends to aim their retaliation at President Trump and the Republican party directly.

The same can be said for taxing soybeans, most of which come from the Heartland that overwhelming votes Republican each election cycle. As for putting tariffs on wine and nuts, most of the nut exports come from California, which is a tried-and-true blue state. However, the Central Valley of California swings red and is the largest region of tree nut production in the country.

Hogs at Jodar Farms in Fort Collins, CO

Photo credit: Sam Jones

These politically-rooted trade tariffs may also help to explain why President Trump and his staff decided to exempt the countries they did. A reduced export market, or even a reduction in prices due to speculation, for Wisconsin cheese and Kentucky bourbon would not have been good for the political representatives of those districts. Such repercussions, however, seem unavoidable. When pork producers in North Carolina feel the repercussions of fewer sales and lower prices, they will tie their struggle directly back to President Trump’s decision to start a trade war with China.

As history continues to prove, the losers of trade wars almost always outnumber the winners. From the initial tariffs, the companies and their employees that rely on cheap steel and aluminum imports will suffer as production costs rise. Consumers of steel and aluminum products—like your thirst-quenching 12oz. can of PBR or a shiny Ford F-150—will suffer as higher production costs are pushed onto them. From China’s retaliatory measures, the U.S. farmers who produce the taxed goods will also suffer. Likewise, consumers in China will suffer from higher prices of these taxed U.S. agricultural products.

American farmers of competing products will also suffer because excess pork that cannot be exported will flood the domestic market, and consumers might switch from beef or chicken to the now-cheaper pork. With less beef and chicken consumption, corn and soy producers will also feel a hit. And with everyone’s prices falling, non-farm agricultural input industries will feel the trickle-down effect on top of revenue loss from rising steel and aluminum prices.

Because the steel and aluminum tariffs don’t even apply to the five largest exporters, the U.S. steel and aluminum manufacturing industry is not likely to experience a significant economic boost. In the end, Trump’s trade war managed to single out an openly hostile political adversary that was already facing steel and aluminum tariffs due to its unfair dumping practices. As a major importer of U.S. agricultural products, a disgruntled China ends up straining American farmers more than anyone else. And if it ends up hurting them so badly that they decide to release their frustration at the polls, there just might be a blue majority in the house this fall.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with an interest in sustainable agriculture and food journalism. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine and will be working on a flower farm this summer. You can read more of her work at culturecheesemag.com.

The Transformative Power of Urban Food Systems

by Sam Jones

Last month, the Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference came to Boston for its sixth year. Topics ranged from bee colonies and school gardens to hydroponics and the farm bill. A synopsis of issues relating to food access to youth incarceration can be found here, while the entire list of topics and more event information can be found online.

“The price of democracy is eternal vigilance,” says Karen Voci, the president of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation. At a time when the outcomes of political debates are as predictable as a roll of the dice, the acuity of civil society is of the utmost importance. For the sanctity of democracy and its ability to serve the people, that philosophy is relevant in every aspect of life, particularly in food systems. Food systems have the ability to both enhance egality and take it away.

The Sixth Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference presented a slice of the world of which our eternal vigilance is both crucial and progressing. It was hosted by the Urban Farming Institute in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources on March 16th and 17th at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, MA. Each day of the conference included four sessions and one or two keynote speeches. For each session, attendees selected one of five or six topics to be a part of. This event synopsis is based on my experience from the sessions I chose to attend on the first day of the conference.

During the first session, titled “A New Approach to Food Access: Best Practices to Shift Systems,” the first question asked by the moderator, Raheem Baraka of Baraka Community Wellness, was “What is your vision for a New England Food System?” In founding the Three River Farmers Alliance, a farm product aggregation business in New Hampshire, Andre Cantelmo hopes to achieve community-level food sovereignty in New England. As a farmer himself, he recognized that small farms lack the clout to push through the local food system on their own. In response, his Alliance fills a role that allows farms to specialize, which lowers prices for consumers and increases demand for locally farmed produce.

Cantelmo and Shawn Cooney, of Cornerstalk Farm, both admitted that their business models currently cater to “the middle-class white woman” who can afford fresh local produce at the farmers market. Cooney hopes these “early adopters” can act as funders that help their businesses grow and become more affordable and accessible in the long run. They hope to expand the New England local food system from one that includes their farm’s name on a  farm-to-table restaurant’s menu, to serving their carrots in school cafeterias anonymously, because “that’s just how it should be,” according to Cantelmo.

The topic of commodity crop subsidies soon came up in the discussion. Instead of hoping the subsidy structure will change, Cantelmo accepts it but intends to build a system through local food aggregation that can effectively compete with commodity crop subsidies. On the other hand, Voci argued that there is room for democratization in the food system, adding that the more people who familiarize themselves with the system, the more educated voters our society will have. Perhaps a more educated voter base will be able to demand change to the subsidy structure that disadvantages many small farmers.

On the topic of federal policy intervention, both Cantelmo and Cooney noticed that Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) and SNAP recipients make up a notable proportion of their customer base. However, there is a visible access problem. Cooney noted that customers using HIP and SNAP typically come to his farm store in large groups by bus or van, indicating that significant coordination unrelated to his business must go into providing people access to fresh local produce. Voci, while encouraged by the use of HIP and SNAP, voiced her concern about the future of these programs under the current administration.

When asked if local produce can be integrated into the current large-scale distribution system, the major concern of the panelists was “greenwashing”. According to both Cooney and Cantelmo, large distributors like Sysco have approached them for fresh produce, which puts their names on a list of producers that sell to the distributor. After a while, however, these large distributors stopped sourcing from them, yet their names and the sustainable methods associated with them remained likewise associated with the large distributors. This greenwashing dilemma is one reason why Cantelmo has taken food aggregation and distribution into his own hands. It is also an example of how self-organization can circumvent a much larger problem.

Another session I attended was called “Job Skills and Agriculture: Models for At-Risk and Formerly Incarcerated Youth.” Captain David Granese from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department talked about a different kind of urban farm—one within the walls of a prison. This working farm is completely run by the prisoners themselves, who can earn time off their sentence in exchange for hard work, learning marketable job skills along the way.

UTEC, also represented on the panel, aims to reduce recidivism in Lowell, MA by teaching formerly incarcerated youth specific food-related job skills, while also offering valuable certificates that employers look for. This organization partners with the unemployment office, the division of labor, and employers in the community to identify where people with a criminal record who go through UTEC’s program are welcome to apply for jobs. UTEC also has an arrangement with the community college to get its members on a path to higher education that does not lead them back behind bars. UTEC is effective at achieving its goals—two years after the program, 78% of UTEC graduates are employed compared to just 40% or formerly incarcerated youth nationwide.  

Across every session, I was reminded why I want to study food systems in the first place. Food and farming have the ability to address seemingly unrelated issues, like crime and gentrification, in ways that can be uniquely tailored to each place and situation. Urban agriculture can breathe life back into a community. Food can make a success story out of a kid going nowhere fast. Food and farming are approachable avenues through which we can democratize our system as we see fit. Urban agriculture has the ability to actually create a more equal society while outside forces attempt to divide us. The Sixth Annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference illustrated the potential for food systems to act as a vehicle for positive self-organization that puts a person’s health and well-being at the forefront of progress.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a passion for sharing others’ stories. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine and hopes to pursue a career in sustainable agricultural development and food journalism.

Farmer Profile: Visions for a New Sustainable Vegetable Farm in Putnam, CT

by Nako Kobayashi

Farmer Yoko Takemura hopes to incorporate aspects of her Japanese heritage as well as her academic background in environmental sustainability into her new farm business.

Yoko on a large bag of potting soil. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko on a large bag of potting soil. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

While farmers represent an increasingly aging demographic group, a growing number of young farmers in New England and across the country are working to change the food system. Many of these new farmers, like Yoko Takemura of Assawaga Farm in Putnam, Connecticut, do not have farming backgrounds but instead have experiences that bring different perspectives and ideas into their farming practices. Yoko, who I was introduced to through my former boss at Cloverleigh Farm, is drawing inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural practices in her effort to make her new farm a truly sustainable operation.

Growing up around the world due to her father’s occupation, Yoko always had a passion for the environment. She never thought, however, that she would end up becoming a farmer. After graduating from a university in Tokyo, she briefly worked in investment banking so that she could save money for graduate school. She eventually quit her job and moved to New York City to study environmental sustainability in graduate school. Living in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, she became a member of a community garden and started developing a passion for growing vegetables and the way growing food can bring people together. It wasn’t until she joined her first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group while working for a consulting firm in NYC, however, that she really started to think about starting her own farm. Yoko’s “a-ha!” moment came to her when she visited Windflower Farm in upstate New York for the annual CSA member’s potluck. “On the ride back to NYC,” she reminisces, “I couldn’t stop visualizing myself as a farmer!” She then applied for apprenticeships on vegetable farms outside of NYC and eventually found Riverbank Farm in Western Connecticut, where she worked for 3 years.

Yoko and her husband, Alex, in front of a farm building they constructed. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and her husband, Alex, in front of a farm building they constructed. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

To start their own farm business, Yoko and her husband Alex bought 22 acres of land in Putnam, Connecticut in 2016. Because the land had been previously used to farm hay for decades, Yoko and Alex had to build all of their own farm infrastructure from scratch. However, this actually works to their advantage as they now have the freedom to design their infrastructure with their specific sustainability goals in mind. For example, they were able to build their greenhouse in a way that accommodates SolaWrap, a durable greenhouse cover that lasts much longer than many other plastic films used in greenhouses.

SolaWrap being installed on Assawaga Farm's new greenhouse. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

SolaWrap being installed on Assawaga Farm’s new greenhouse. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and Alex take a lot of inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural methods in order to achieve their sustainability goals. The couple spent some time travelling around Japan and visiting many farms and learning about the various ways in which some Japanese farmers have cultivated a harmonious relationship with the natural environment. While organic agriculture can often be heavily dependent on inputs from fossil fuels, Yoko hopes to take her greenhouse off the grid by incorporating the Japanese practice of fumikomi-onsho, which involves mixing a large amount of leaves with some rice bran and chicken manure, applying water to it, and stomping on the mixture in order to generate heat. This variation of composting creates a fairly steady level of heat for weeks. This allows farmers to start their seedlings as well as have heat in the greenhouse without the use of electricity.

Building a relationship with the forest is another aspect of traditional Japanese agriculture that Yoko became enamored with when visiting farms in Japan. “The forest gave the farmers mulch, wood, bamboo, inoculant, etc. and the farmers gave back by maintaining and taking care of the forest through selective cutting, cleaning up, etc.” In comparison, Yoko explains that “the health of our forests around here” is “terrifyingly bad”. Yoko hopes to actively help better the condition of the forests that encompass her land in the coming years “because the forest is as much part of our farm as is our field.” One way Yoko and Alex want to give back to the forest is by applying “humanure” from composting toilets to the neighboring forests, after a two year composting period. For various health-related reasons, the “humanure” will not be used for their actual farming operation, but it is one way Yoko and Alex can create a more harmonious relationship with the forests that surround their land.

Yoko and Alex's DIY composting toilet. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and Alex’s DIY composting toilet that will help them give back to their forests. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

For Yoko, the terms organic and sustainable are not one and the same. While Assawaga Farm has applied for organic certification, there are some additional practices that Yoko and her husband want to incorporate in order to reduce as much waste associated with and inputs required for their farm as possible. In addition to some of the Japanese practices they want to try out on their farm, there are many other sustainable practices not included in the certification that Yoko and Alex hope to take on. For example, they hope to use minimal amounts of plastic by not using any one-time drip tapes or plastic mulch, often used by organic farmers to help suppress weeds. They also plan to eventually create all of their own fertilizer, compost, and potting mix using the Japanese bokashi method of inoculating fertilizer with local culture taken from the nearby forests.

Believing that “organic originates in soil”, Yoko wants to take special care of the soil on their farm by using minimal tilling and eventually transitioning into no-till agriculture. This will help them “keep the delicate web of microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi intact,” in addition to preserving the soil structure, maintaining carbon in the soil and keeping a steady release of nutrients in the soil “rather than short bursts of it.” They plan to have at least one field in their farm dedicated to cover crops year-round which will help prevent the depletion of nutrients and accumulate biomass. The couple also hope to save their own seeds and breed seeds that are adapted to their local environment.

In addition to using Japanese farming practices, Yoko also plans to grow many Japanese varieties of vegetables on her farm. When asked why she wanted to grow Japanese varieties, she responded simply that she just wanted to grow vegetables that she craved from home and that she wanted to eat herself! In addition, growing Japanese varieties helps Yoko target a niche market within the oversaturated market for organic produce in the Boston area. She is particularly excited about growing edamame, as “it’s just not summer without edamames!”

Alex seeing Assawaga Farm's first crop - garlic! (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Alex seeding Assawaga Farm’s first crop – garlic! (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

In the next few months, Yoko and Alex will be busy getting ready for their first growing season and transitioning into the full-time farming lifestyle. They start seeding in three weeks! Look for Yoko and Alex in farmers markets in the Boston area this coming season (locations yet to be decided). They also have some CSA shares available through their website.

Update, March 2, 2018: An earlier version of this article failed to clarify that the composted humanure would be used on Assawaga’s surrounding forest land only, and not on the farm itself. This has been updated for clarity, and we apologize if our omission was misleading to our readers.
-Editors

Nako Kobayashi is a first year AFE student from Japan who has experience working on a small organic farm, a biodynamic vineyard, for the agricultural sector of a Japanese municipal government, and on a food hub development project. Having a B.A. in anthropology, she loves talking directly with farmers from various backgrounds and hearing about their unique perspectives of the food system. 

I Say Potato

by Lindsay LaJoie, RD

Growing up on a family farm meant changing roles with the seasons, and changing with the times.

For over 100 years, the LaJoie family has been growing potatoes in Aroostook County in Northern Maine. What was once a small farm with fewer than 10 acres has grown into a 1,300-acre operation, and as you can imagine, many aspects of production have changed. My father is a fourth-generation potato grower, and even in the last few decades, he has witnessed a multitude of technological advancements that have led to the growth and efficiency of our farm today. While the horse-drawn plows and potato barrels have faded from the images of the yearly harvest, replaced by high-powered tractors and mechanical potato harvesters, one thing has remained constant throughout the generations: family.

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Tractors on the Family Farm. Photo credit: Nic LaJoie

 

My father and his seven siblings—one brother and six sisters—grew up working on my grandfather’s farm, and as my aunts will tell you, the girls were always the fastest when it came to hand-picking barrels of potatoes. After studying Diesel Technology for a year after high school and spending a few years as a truck driver, my father ultimately returned to Grand Prix Farms, my grandfather’s 400-acre operation, to settle into his own farming career. He recalls using tractors and equipment built in the 1950s well into the 1980s, with little change over that 30-year span. In the 1990s, he witnessed the beginning of a stream of innovations that would forever change his life as a farmer. No longer did he have to rely on CB radios or listening for the sound of another tractor in a nearby field to communicate with my uncle and grandfather—he could pick up his cell phone anywhere, anytime. In the year 2000, when my grandparents bought us a computer capable of Internet connection, the family business was truly revolutionized.

It was at a young age that my siblings and I learned our own roles on the family farm. We’d wake up early, put on tiny work gloves and boots, and ride in dad’s pickup truck to the potato house. There, we stood on step stools to be able to see the potatoes whizzing past on the fast-moving conveyor belts, working alongside our senior family members, and reveling in the nods and smiles of approval from our grandfather. I never knew what happened to the potatoes once they were hauled away in huge 18-wheelers, just that it was my job to watch the conveyor and pull out any bad potatoes—along with rocks or any non-potato objects. At the time when our new computer came along, the market was tough, and my father was looking to find a new niche. In a career where success can be determined by something as uncontrollable as the weather, and with a wife and four young children to support, my father began to view the Internet—a foreign concept—as an opportunity.

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Photo Credit: Nic LaJoie

Most of what I remember about using the Internet at the age of 10 is that I could play a lot of computer games, and my mother couldn’t use the phone while I was online. My father, a man who once opted out of taking a high school computer course because he “never thought [he’d] need it,” was initially weary of online communication and its potential implications. He remembers finally finding the courage to contact people on the Internet, hoping to sell a new product he was interested in growing: blue potatoes. He grew small amounts at first, starting with five acres, and increasing to 10 acres the following season. These potatoes—blue on the outside and the inside—were sold to brokers in the beginning, until finally one of my father’s emails was forwarded to a buyer of raw product for Terra Chips. The buyer came to visit the farm, and soon after, my grandfather was trucking a sample of blue potatoes to the Terra Chip factory in New Jersey. The full load was sold, and a long-term relationship began.

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Photo Credit: Nic LaJoie

In 2007, our family farm was restructured to create LaJoie Growers, LLC, which is now an operation co-owned by my father and his brother, nephew, and cousin. Previously, the farm was structured in such a way that equipment and labor were shared, but the crop belonged to the individual farmer. This could be a problem if tending and harvesting schedules led to a great yield for one individual, and failed crops for another. Restructuring the company allowed for gains (and losses) to be shared, solidifying the teamwork that is needed to succeed in a large agricultural operation. But the owners are not the only members of the LaJoie Growers team. My grandparents instilled the essence of the family farm in their eight children and 26 grandchildren, myself included. The family is continuing to grow, and each of us contributes to the farm in any way that we can, even if right now it can only be love and support sent up from Boston.

Today, LaJoie Growers, LLC grows 220-acres of blue potatoes, all of which are dedicated to Terra Chips (as seen on JetBlue!) or as seed for next year’s crop. Over the years the scope has widened beyond potatoes to include multiple varieties of beets, carrots, and parsnips, all of which are also made into Terra Chips. There is no question that growing up on the family farm taught me about the importance of hard work, dedication, and perseverance, and I am incredibly grateful for that. Even though I am not at home to work anymore, I observe the business continuing to evolve by growing new vegetables and using GPS technology in tractors to maximize efficiency, and I am inspired to seek opportunities, take chances, and be innovative. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll find my blue potato.

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Photo Credit: Nic LaJoie

Lindsay LaJoie is a Registered Dietitian and second year biochemical & molecular nutrition student. Her favorite way to eat potatoes is any way her grandmother cooks them.