Politics & Government

Fruit and nut farmers in California plead for Trump tariff relief: ‘It snowballed’

California lawmakers want the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide some relief to more farm industries that are affected by the Trump administration’s trade war with China, especially ones that employ thousands of people in the Central Valley.

They are asking USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to make more specialty crops, such as grapes and walnuts, eligible for a trade relief program that gives some farmers direct payments to offset a loss of their income.

It’s designed to help them cope with retaliatory tariffs China has declared on certain U.S. products over the past two years. China just announced another round of those retaliatory tariffs this week, though Canada and Mexico announced Friday they were removing their retaliatory tariffs against the U.S., a win for the agriculture industry.

California farmers — who grow a range of fruits, vegetables and nuts — say getting that aid would be help them navigate the economic uncertainty caused by the tariffs.

“Some of the programs didn’t take effect until this year, and growers lost a lot of money and it snowballed,” said Marcy Martin, director of trade for the California Fresh Fruit Association. “You can only sustain so many bad years, and you have a lot of people depending on you.”

Perdue announced this week that the Trump administration will offer a new trade aid package with between $15 million and $20 million farmers.

An estimated 287,000 people in California work in industries that are exposed to being affected by Chinese tariffs on a range of U.S. exports to China — by far the largest amount of employees at risk in the nation, according to a report from the Brookings Institution

Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock, led the bipartisan letter signed by 16 members of Congress that asks that all specialty crops, such as fruits, vegetables and nuts, be included in the products that receive direct payments from the government.

His district, which includes Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, in the No. 1 walnut producer in the state, with both counties producing nearly 200,000 tons of walnuts in the past year. All members who signed have districts that rely on specialty crops.

“Protecting our walnut growers also protects our farmworkers – losing revenue can mean losing Central Valley jobs,” Harder said. “We can never let that happen – especially because our area has an unemployment rate of almost 7 percent.”

The direct payments have become even more important as the trade war has dragged on, Martin said.

“We all thought this would be over earlier this year,” Martin said. “There’s a big difference in direct benefits to the grower versus incremental payments getting back to the grower. That was meant for short-term disruptions to the market, and obviously we’re past that.”

Growers hoping to be newly covered by the direct payments are also competing with some products that are already covered but want more money. For example, the government pays a cent per bushel for corn, and corn farmers want more compensation. Other crops currently covered include cotton, dairy, soybeans and wheat.

The request lists table grapes as a crop that lawmakers want covered. It does not necessarily apply to wine grapes, according to John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

China was not a huge market loss for the industry, even as the country has put a total tax and tariff rate of 91 percent as of June 1, but it was the fastest growing market for wine in the world.

The tariffs have meant California growers have lost out on competing in a new market, which could have meant significant growth. It’s difficult to quantify in terms of losses, he said.

“So this trade dispute means we are going backwards instead of capturing this market, which other countries like Australia have moved in on,” Aguirre said.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.