STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have a deeper look at American farmers affected by the trade war with China. It's well-known that soybean farmers have lost their biggest market. What's less understood is that the whole U.S. farm economy was directed overseas until now. Here's Amy Mayer of Iowa Public Radio.
AMY MAYER, BYLINE: Let's look at farm trade in three acts; Act I - oversupply and politics. Going back at least to the late 19th century, U.S. farmers have sold much of what they've grown abroad. That's according to historian Joe Anderson of Mount Royal University in Calgary. But he says after World War II, a couple of changes set the stage for today's global marketplace.
JOE ANDERSON: There's agricultural policy that's part of this. There's technology that's part of this.
MAYER: Synthetic fertilizer and other advances meant farmers were producing well beyond the domestic demand for crops such as corn and soybeans. And in Washington, lawmakers decided to marry surplus to foreign policy.
ANDERSON: In the post-World War II period, the United States started using food and commodities in general as a tool in the Cold War.
MAYER: Beyond government-directed sales to other countries, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and many commodity groups combined forces to open offices overseas and sponsor trade missions.
DENNY FRIEST: The most recent one I was at Vietnam and the Philippines.
MAYER: Central Iowa farmer Denny Friest serves on the Iowa Corn board and has made several trips to Asia.
FRIEST: As a corn grower and a soybean grower and a pork producer, these markets are very key to everything that I need to create demand for the product we grow because we're in a global economy.
MAYER: These pigs eat a lot of soybeans, and then some of them get sold abroad. But what happens when demand slumps? That brings us to Act II - why do farmers stick with the same crops?
FRIEST: This is where all the technology is.
MAYER: Farming today takes a lot of capital. As a boy, Friest never rode on a tractor with a cab. But five decades into this business, the one on this John Deere is equipped with four different monitors. With all he's invested in land equipment and technology, he can't just wake up one day and decide to grow something else.
FRIEST: Our soils adapt very well to growing corn. They grow soybeans. We have the markets for them. And we have the machinery set up for it.
MAYER: So he's dedicated to attracting overseas buyers. In addition to Asian countries, he and other farmers have their eyes on Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Already this year, the European Union is buying more from the U.S. than it used to. Pekka Pesonen is with the main lobbying voice for EU agriculture.
PEKKA PESONEN: Imports from the United States increased by 14%, mainly due to soybean imports.
MAYER: Even though the robust trade relationship between the U.S. and EU has a long history, Pesonen says it's not immune to impacts from the current trade war between the U.S. and China.
PESONEN: It's quite worrying for us because agriculture is usually one of the first casualties of such a dispute. And quite often, it's kind of collateral damage.
MAYER: And many U.S. farmers feel like they're the collateral damage right now. While a second promised bailout could help some, many hope instead for a trade resolution that revives the Chinese market for their products. Now Act III - China's too big to lose. Chinese demand is huge. That's how farmers came to be so focused on it, says Mike Steenhoek of the Soy Transportation Coalition.
MIKE STEENHOEK: And that paid off swimmingly for a number of years. And now all of a sudden, due to geopolitical tension, that forecast has changed dramatically.
MAYER: Meaning until China and the U.S. reach a truce in the trade war, there's going to be lots of stress throughout farm country.
For NPR News, I'm Amy Mayer in Des Moines.
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