It was supposed to be a speech about energy in Pennsylvania on Aug. 13 but President Donald Trump strayed from his prepared remarks to discuss trade with Japan.
“Many car plants—they’re coming in from Japan. I told Prime Minister Abe—great guy. I said, ‘Listen, we have a massive deficit with Japan.’ They send thousands and thousands—millions—of cars. We send them wheat. Wheat. (Laughter.) That’s not a good deal. And they don’t even want our wheat. They do it because they want us to at least feel that we’re okay. You know, they do it to make us feel good.”
It was an off-the-cuff remark that offended several wheat growers and some growers’ associations.
In a response over Twitter, the National Association of Wheat Growers responded to the president’s remarks:
“.@realDonaldTrump Mr. President, Japan is the #1 market for US wheat exports on average, where we hold just over 50% of the market. They don’t buy our wheat because “they want us to feel okay. They buy it because it’s the highest quality wheat in the world. That’s not fake news.”
NAWG CEO Chandler Goule came onto the HPJ Talk podcast Aug. 15 to discuss the situation.
“To take the third largest commodity grown in the United States, the breadbasket commodity, and pitch us under the bus in an offhanded comment shows a lack of responsibility,” Goule said. NAWG chose to respond over Twitter because, he said, it is one way to get the president’s attention.
“It’s not my style or the wheat growers’ style to fight or make our statements on social media,” Goule said. “That’s just not the way we do our business. But it seems to be the only way to communicate with this particular president.” The Japanese market accounts for roughly $1 billion per year in wheat sales, he added. And that’s based on the high quality wheat American farmers grow, despite the economic disadvantage American wheat has against Trans-Pacific Partnership nation countries like Australia and Canada in the Japanese market.
“Was it an off-the-cuff comment he just said? Yes,” Goule said. “But, he said it in front of thousands of cameras, when we’re in the middle of a trade war, when wheat prices are ratcheting down every day.” Goule added that if the president had just phrased his point to encompass the whole agricultural goods that America exports to Japan, instead of singling out wheat, it would have been an entirely different matter.
State wheat groups and individual wheat farmers made their voices heard online too.
Nebraska Wheat Board came out on Facebook on Aug. 14 with its statement, “Nebraska averages $15 to $20 million of wheat exports to Japan annually. It is a top market for our state. They value the quality our farmers produce,” the graphic said. “We’ll continue working to maintain relationships with our milling partners over there and market share for our wheat producers here.”
Michelle Erickson-Jones is a fifth generation wheat farmer from south central Montana, who also blogs under the moniker, “Big Sky FarmHer.” She shared a video update from the wheat field where harvest is in full swing to explain that Japan is a critical market for Montana wheat growers like her family.
“Japan is our most important market for Montana and it is our No. 1 market for the U.S overall,” she said. “They demand quality. The Japanese have very high quality standards and they come to the U.S. to get it. They are a market that we spent the last 50 years building, curating, and insuring that we provide them the quality wheat they need to make (products) for their customers.
“We have developed a mature market,” Erickson-Jones said. “We have 50% of their market share, worth $5.5 billion for U.S. wheat farmers last year, and one we hope to continue.”
(Note: According to U.S. Wheat, $5.5 billion is the total value of all U.S. wheat exports to all locations in calendar year 2018, according to World's Top Exporters. Japan has imported an average of 2.91 million metric tons per year for the past five years. The value of that amount varies from year to year, but currently it is estimated to be worth close to $700 million.)
What makes this frustrating for American wheat farmers, Goule explained, is that Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development funds have been used to carefully build a trading relationship with Japanese millers since 1949, a relationship based on the Japanese demand for the highest quality wheat and American farmers’ ability to grow it to their standards.
That’s why wheat farmers from across the Pacific Northwest and Plains states were excited because they stood to win big under the negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement from which President Trump withdrew because of this Japanese demand for quality wheat. Since then, Canada and Australia have made in-roads in claiming more Japanese market share.
“The new TPP agreement puts U.S. wheat growers at an economic disadvantage to our two largest competitors, Australia and Canada,” Goule explained. “they see lower tariffs on their wheat going into Japan. Right now, the U.S. still maintains 50% share of that export market, but if we don’t strike a bilateral with Japan to put us on a level playing ground, that could roughly go down to 23% of that export market.”
Erickson-Jones added that negotiating a bilateral trade agreement is critical for farmers like her to keep their farms afloat.
“Thirty percent of the wheat we raise in Montana annually goes to Japan,” she said. “Thirty percent of our farm’s annual income comes from the relationship we have built with Japan, and from the quality we provide them.
“Hopefully (the president) will understand how harmful and disappointing the remarks that he made last night were and to underscore the value of that market to our Japanese buyers that we know they are essential and we know how important they are,” she added.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.