Prove your humanity

President Trumps new tariffs on steel and aluminum will hurt my farm.

That much was true when President Trump signed the documents to impose a 25-percent tax on imported steel and a 10-percent tax on imported aluminum. These tariffs will raise the price of farm machinery and almost certainly spark a trade war that no one can winand especially not farmers like me, who depend on exports for our livelihood.

As if the stakes werent high enough already, President Trump raised them even higher when he linked the new tariffs to NAFTA renegotiations. While Mexico and Canada have been excluded for the time being from the broad tariffs, that exemption is contingent on the signing of a new & fair NAFTA agreement.

Whats the solution? Perhaps the presidents actions will encourage other countries to come to the negotiating table and compromise, allowing goods and services to flow across borders with less interference. Thats an ongoing goal for U.S farmers: More access to export markets.

The optimist in me says that well soon see concrete victories. Weve never had a New York streetfighter like President Trump on our side. Perhaps hell help us make NAFTA and other trade agreements even better.

The realist in me, however, worries about a much different result.

Here in farm country, these tariffs will sting.

Thats not their purpose. President Trump hopes to revive the U.S. steel and aluminum industries, which is a worthy goal. Yet any benefits the tariffs deliver to these sectors will be eclipsed by the unintended consequence of much broader damage to the rest of the economy.

We hardly need another problem in agriculture. At a time of low commodity pricesI grow corn and soybeans in Iowawere already losing money. Now were probably going to lose even more.

The tariffs will injure farmers in two major ways.

First, theyll increase the cost of machinery. The tariffs will force manufacturers to pay more for the raw materials that go into tractors, combines and pickups. This means that theyll have to charge higher prices. Farmers who seek to replace old vehicles with new ones will experience sticker shockand theyll either fork over more money than they had budgeted or theyll skip buying altogether.

As it happens, few of us were going to make big purchases this year, because of the low commodity prices. What would have been a bad year for farm-equipment manufacturers, their workers and the dealers that sell the equipment now will turn even worse.

Yet even those of us who were planning to put off new purchases will feel pain from the tariffs. To keep our older machinery running, were always repairing itand the cost of spare parts will go up, too.

So theres no escaping the impact of these tariffs on our bottom line.

Yet the real harm to agriculture will come another way, as our trading partners retaliate against the United States.

Thats what happens in trade wars. When one side imposes new tariffs, the other side responds with tariffs of its ownoften in completely different economic areas.

Consider the case of Chinese tires. President Obama limited their access to the U.S. market in 2009. China hit back with new restrictions on American chicken exports. Early signs suggest that in this new conflict, China may target sorghum, a grain grown in Kansas and elsewhere.

Theres no clear connection between tires and chickens or steel and sorghum, except that the Chinese think that punishing American agriculture will capture the attention of U.S. political officials and persuade them to change their policies.

This latest dispute, however, isnt mainly about China. The new steel and aluminum tariffs angered a long list of countries, including neighbors and allies like Canada, Mexico, and South Korea. Each one is an important customer of U.S. farm products.

Several have already threatened to retaliate. Their choice of targets will be both economic and political as they devise new trade barriers, probably on the crops and meat that come from the presidents political base in swing states of the American heartland.

Out here in farm country, were worried. History shows that nobody wins a trade war. Instead, both sides suffer as they escalate their disputes and block economic cooperationand the suffering in the United States will hit all of us but the worst may take place among us farmers.

This column first appeared Mar 12 at The Hill.