Monday, March 16, 2020

Trump's tariffs leave tobacco growers in the lurch; some can't get sales contracts despite new trade agreement

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
Tobacco growers and their communities have been struggling for years because of a declining market, but the trade war with China made it worse—especially in North Carolina, the nation's top tobacco producer, and some other Southern states. Though the Trump administration recently signed a Phase One trade deal with China, many tobacco farmers are still unsure about how much to plant this year. Seeds need to be planted this month, but many still don't have sales contracts with manufacturers, Amanda Abrams reports for The Washington Post.

"The uncertainty is endangering individual livelihoods, not just of growers but of the workers who earn off-season dollars in the processing plants," Abrams reports. "It’s also threatening rural communities, which have long been buoyed by tobacco money, and exacerbating the divide between them and North Carolina’s booming urban areas."

In 2018, the Trump administration announced billions in tariffs on Chinese goods. China volleyed back with its own tariffs, including on American tobacco products. China was the top customer for North Carolina tobacco; since the trade war began, farmers have lost about $250 million, but weren't eligible for federal bailout payments like most other farmers, Abrams reports.

Farmers are trying to turn to alternatives, but other crops don't bring in the kind of profit tobacco did, and many are struggling. In North Carolina, 16 family farms filed for bankruptcy in 2019.  "The economic troubles ripple outward; one of the region’s biggest private employers, Vidant Health, announced possible layoffs a month ago. Economists have estimated that every dollar earned from tobacco results in almost $4 in new spending — on farm equipment, fertilizer, labor and other purchases in the community," Abrams reports.

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