Blame Trump’s Tariffs and the Weather. New York’s Farmers Do.

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PENN YAN, N.Y. — For the first three weeks of July, Peter Martens prayed for rain. At the end of the month the rain finally arrived, but by then it was too late for some of his crops. For others, it was too much water, too quickly.

The lack of rain, Mr. Martens said, will reduce his corn yield by about 20 percent, but the late-summer deluges damaged the quality of his spelt, a type of wheat.

New York’s extreme weather this summer, which began with a drought followed by flash flooding, has been enough to make it a difficult season for the state’s farmers.

But farmers say President Trump’s trade war and his administration’s crackdown on immigration have made a bad summer far worse.

Red numbers are filling farmers’ balance sheets: Mr. Martens’s butternut squash is covered in weeds because he did not have enough workers, at the right time, to hoe the field and now his yield will be far less than he expected. He is also nervous about selling his red kidney beans because higher tariffs abroad threaten to drive down the price as international markets disappear.

“There was always something that did well,” Mr. Martens said about the variety of crops on his farm in Penn Yan, N.Y. “Now if nothing does well, what do you do?”

Farmers across the country are asking the same question, as they endure economic losses because of Mr. Trump’s trade policies. Initial estimates point to a roughly $3 billion loss in value for soybean and corn crops across the country since May, according to a report from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The National Milk Producers Federation estimates that the tariffs will cost American dairy farmers $1.8 billion.

In New York, the combination of the administration’s policies and the weather is threatening to decimate the state’s $37 billion agriculture and food-processing industry.

“I’ve never had them all at one time,” said Dale Stein, a dairy farmer in Le Roy, N.Y.

“You’ll deal with a drought here. You’ll deal with a bad price year. You deal with a major labor issue,” he said. “But they’re all this year. It’s a compounded problem this year, and I think it’s got an awful lot of farmers saying ‘I’m done.’”

Pat McCormick, a seventh-generation dairy farmer in Java Center, N.Y., said that for the first time his family has discussed the possibility of selling the farm.

“We love working with the cows,’’ he said. “We love working in the field. But just with the way the financial picture is, do we really want to keep struggling like we are?”

One indicator of the crisis in New York is an increase in the number of farms on the market. Tom Hosking, who runs an agriculture auction service, said in a busy year he might help sell five farms in New York. This year he has already sold 20.

A Season of Extremes

Mr. Stein usually has to strain his neck to see the top of the stalks of corn that typically reach 12 feet. This year he is almost at eye level with the six-foot stalks. The drought deprived the crop of water, stunting its growth and reducing his yield of corn to feed his nearly 2,000 cows. As a result, Mr. Stein estimated he will spend between $15,000 and $20,000 a month to feed them — until next year’s harvest.

Arthur T. DeGaetano, an earth science professor at Cornell University who is also the director of the Northeast Regional Climate Center, points to the changing climate to explain the more unpredictable weather that New York has been seeing recently: this year, a dry July followed by flooding in August.

“You don’t have these years where you can kick back and do what you normally do,” Professor DeGaetano said. “You have to worry about bringing water in. You have to worry about irrigating your crop. You have to worry about whether you can get into the field early enough to plant corn because it may be too wet to get equipment in there.”

For Dale Mattoon, the owner of Pine Hollow Dairy in Locke, N.Y., the extreme weather also tightens his farming schedule.

“It changes the way you go about your work because the weather windows are smaller, so you have to get more done in less time,” he said.

As a result, Mr. Mattoon said he has had to buy larger equipment that can do the work faster and more efficiently, purchases that strained the already-tight finances of a farm that has not made a profit selling dairy for the past three years.

‘Everything Collapsed’

In June, Ron Robbins, who owns North Harbor Dairy in Sackets Harbor, N.Y., finally saw a reason to be optimistic. After three years of low prices for his four main commodities — milk, soybeans, wheat and corn — the pricing forecasts for this season were positive.

“I was looking at being able to secure some prices that were finally going to put us at profitable levels,” he said.

Then the tariffs hit.

“So everything collapsed,” he said.

Mr. Robbins said he is losing more than $50,000 a month on milk production: It costs him $16.50 to produce 100 pounds of milk, but the price he got in July for three million pounds of milk was $14.78 per 100 pounds. He also expects a significantly lower profit on his soybeans.

As countries have levied retaliatory tariffs in response to tariffs imposed by the Trump administration, American goods have become more difficult to sell in foreign markets, said Jennifer Ifft, an agricultural economist at Cornell University. Canada and Mexico are the biggest markets for the American dairy industry and both countries have raised tariffs on dairy products. Most soybeans are exported to China, which imposed a 25 percent tariff on the commodity that took effect in July.

“In most cases, a good share of growth in these markets has been through exports markets,” Ms. Ifft said.

“It’s just a very low margin environment right now, which is sort of normal for agriculture,’’ she added. “But when there are these repeated shocks, that’s when it gets hard for people.”

The Trump administration has tried to cushion the impact on farmers by announcing plans to extend up to $12 billion in aid to those hurt by the tariffs. The Department of Agriculture is expected to provide details of the plan, which would provide payments to support prices of commodities like soybeans, cotton and corn, as early as Friday.

But New York farmers are skeptical of the aid package.

“It’s offering a Band-Aid to buy some votes,” said Craig Yunker, who owns CY Farms in Elba, N.Y. “I think it’s thrown out there to try to mollify the farm belt ahead of the midterms.”

The steep losses have placed such an enormous strain that some farmers believe it has played a role in a rash of suicides on dairy farms in the state.

Mr. Stein, who is losing roughly $55,000 a month because of low dairy prices and a lackluster growing season, sold 23 extra cows in July to pay his bills.

“We’re scrambling to break even and that’s the issue,” he said.

A Shortage of Workers

Mr. Yunker planned to get a head start on growing onions this year so he sent his seeds to Arizona to start germinating. He would have had them back by April to plant but he canceled his order. He knew he was not going to have enough workers to tend to the labor-intensive crop.

“The labor market is very tight,” he said. “It’s hard to find qualified employees. The local papers are full of ads.”

Dairy farmers, in particular, require year-round workers to milk cows, but there are no visa programs for migrant dairy workers. As a result, experts estimate that undocumented immigrants make up a significant percentage of the labor force on New York dairy farms. But the Trump administration’s strict immigration measures are making it more difficult to fill job openings.

“That flow has really, really diminished since the new administration and the increased border security that has taken place,” said Richard E. Stup, an agricultural work force specialist at Cornell University.

A strong economy, both nationally and statewide, has also made it more challenging to find farm workers.

“There’s lots of jobs in the town nearby or other businesses nearby that’s just going to be very attractive for them to go somewhere else and not work on farms,” Mr. Stup said.

Mike McMahon, the owner of E-Z Acres dairy farm in Homer, N.Y., said that one of his most trusted employees who oversees the hospital and maternity barn recently told him that he was leaving to take a construction job that pays $20 an hour, $7 more than he makes on the farm.

“This business doesn’t pay,” Mr. McMahon said. “You don’t make that kind of money in this business.”

‘They Don’t Want It This Hard’

With a diversified business that includes interactive farm tours and a trucking business that transports agricultural products throughout the region, Mr. Robbins said he was confident that he would be able to ride out the difficult season. Still, he worries about the future of farming in the state.

“We are vulnerable for corporate takeover,” he said. “Farmers like ourselves could just become servants to those corporations.”

Nearly all of the 35,500 farms operating in New York are family-owned. From 2012 to 2017, about 17 percent of the state’s dairy farms closed, leaving 4,490 as of last year, according to the New York Farm Bureau.

Jeff Williams, the public policy director for the New York Farm Bureau, said farmers are dealing with the worst economic crisis he has witnessed in his roughly 20 years of working for the bureau, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s agriculture industry.

“It could be a watershed moment in New York,’’ Mr. Williams said.

Richard A. Ball, the state’s agriculture commissioner, was more optimistic, pointing to New York’s natural resources, including rich soil and an abundant supply of water. He also said some fruit crops, such as apples, had productive growing seasons.

“We have a dangerous situation, but there’s also an opportunity to rethink things and maybe realign ourselves and find ourselves in a good place long term,” Mr. Ball said.

But Mr. Stein, the dairy farmer in Le Roy, said this summer’s stresses have taken a toll on his children, who are taking over the family farm.

“I’m getting close to retirement and they’re just getting started,” Mr. Stein, 64, said. “It’s discouraging to them that the combination of everything is so bad. They’re worried about the long-term effects. They don’t want it this hard every year. It’s just not going to be worth doing.”

Original Article

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