Sweet, heady sorghum might not evoke the same images of Kansas agriculture as rippling rows of wheat or sunflowers. But the ancient plant, also known as milo, is an unsung backbone of the state’s farm production, and the threat of a trade war in 2018 has already erased the four-year boom farmers had been enjoying
Kansas is the No. 1 grain sorghum producer in the United States, churning out more than 200 million bushels of the state’s third-largest crop last year. Almost all becomes animal feed (though Ornery Brother Distilling & Milo Vodka in Kinsley, Kan., makes vodka from it).
Starting in late 2013, sorghum began quite a run as a cash crop. China, looking for an alternative to feed corn, turned to the less-pricey sorghum. And Chinese buyers were willing to pay a premium — at prices so high that they soon knocked Mexico, previously the grain’s biggest importer, completely out of the market. China quickly grew to import 60 percent of U.S. production, and farmers saw sorghum fetch more at the grain elevator than corn for the first time that many of them remembered.
Kent Winter, a fifth-generation farmer outside Wichita, said hearty sorghum is particularly attractive as Kansas adjusts to ongoing drought. “My expense for raising sorghum is a lot less than other row crops,” he said, as it needs less water and fertilizer than corn, soybeans or alfalfa.
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The good times ended in February, when China announced an investigation into alleged grain-dumping into its markets — widely understood as a retaliatory measure against President Donald Trump’s threat of tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.
That’s when “our price fell over 90 cents” per bushel, said Dan Atkisson, who grows sorghum in Stockton, Kan., though the price has rebounded to at least pre-2013 levels. But last Tuesday, China dropped a 178 percent tariff hammer on the grain, prompting new worries.
“History has shown us that agriculture far too often bears the brunt when retaliatory measures are taken, and as we see with the tariffs on U.S. sorghum, history is repeating itself,” Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas said Thursday. As chairman of the influential Senate Agriculture Committee, he knows what side farmers’ bread is buttered on.
But under the president’s zero-sum, win-lose paradigm, trade policy is nothing more than a simplistic matter of might. “Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” he blithely tweeted last month.
Game on, says China. And though Trump (and daughter Ivanka) may have experience brokering deals to manufacture shirts and handbags in countries such as Bangladesh or Indonesia, that’s hardly background to justify throwing a monkey wrench into the massively intricate world commodities market.
Roberts and his colleagues in Congress must wield their vast collective experience and power to rein in the president’s foolhardy adventurism. The heartland’s — and the nation’s — economic health is at stake.