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USDA has paid out $7.7 billion to help farmers hit by Trump's tariffs

“Under the trade dispute, soybean exports to China alone have plummeted by 22 million tonnes, or over 90 percent,” said the USDA.
Image: Farmer Mark Catterton harvests soybeans in Owings, Maryland, on Oct. 19, 2018.
Farmer Mark Catterton harvests soybeans in Owings, Maryland, on Oct. 19, 2018.Mark Wilson / Getty Images file

The Department of Agriculture has paid out $7.7 billion so far to help farmers impacted by the ongoing tariff war with China, according to William Northey, Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation.

The funds represent a portion of the $12 billion relief package that President Donald Trump pledged in July to offset the losses from retaliatory tariffs imposed by Beijing in response to Washington's tariffs on Chinese goods.

Northey's comments come as Trump prepares to meet Friday with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He to continue the next stage of trade talks ahead of a March 1 deadline.

If the two countries fail to strike a deal, the current tariff rate of 10 percent will be raised to 25 percent, resulting in billions of dollars of additional tariffs. However, Trump hinted earlier this week that the March 1 deadline was flexible, saying it was not a "magical date" by which any compromise was assured.

His comments contradicted those of his top trade negotiator, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who said in late January, “The deadline is March 1. That is the deadline.”

Increased competition and low commodity prices have hampered the U.S. agricultural industry for years, but while many farmers and farm advocacy groups acknowledge that there is a need for China to be held accountable for its trade deals, others have expressed anxiety.

Instead of making America great again, the president’s policies are “going to make it 1929 again," said Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska when the relief package was announced.

“If we lose the export markets, it will hurt us from an economic standpoint. It will hurt the ability to provide for our family,” Bob Hemesath, a fourth-generation pork producer and corn farmer in northern Iowa, told NBC News last year. “Agriculture is one of the biggest industries in Iowa. It supports a lot of jobs. If agriculture suffers, small-town main street suffers.”

"I think farmers want a quick resolution with China but understand it is important to get China to be good and fair trading partner," John Newton, chief economist at the Farm Bureau, an advocacy organization for farmers, told NBC News last year. "Folks are standing by the administration at this difficult time in hopes that things will be better."

Officials said at the time that the temporary stopgap would be delivered in three ways: Direct assistance, for producers of soybeans, cotton, dairy, corn and hogs; a food purchase program under which the government will buy surpluses of beef, legumes and other products; and a trade promotion program.

The trade war has already had a major impact on the economy, as the USDA detailed this week in its annual meeting.

“Under the trade dispute, [soybean] exports to China alone have plummeted by 22 million tonnes, or over 90 percent,” said Robert Johansson, chief economist of the USDA, speaking in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

“The share of total U.S. agricultural exports to China in value terms is projected to be 6 percent, down sharply, with China falling from the top market in 2017 to fifth place," he said.

U.S. farm exports to China are expected to fall by $1.9 billion in 2019, according to the USDA.