Pennsylvania farmers worry their crops, products will suffer in tariff-fueled trade war |
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Fred Slezak at his 400-acre farm in New Alexandria, where he works producing corn and soybeans.

With nearly 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s $2.2 billion in agriculture exports going to countries that produce aluminum and 17 percent going to steel-producing countries, President Trump’s tariff threats have Keystone State farmers concerned, an industry group said.

“We’re hoping that it doesn’t happen,” said Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

The farming economy, particularly dairy and animal feed crops, has enough troubles, O’Neill said.

“We don’t want to create more opportunities for farmers to have more hardship,” he said.

The main agricultural products exported by the state’s farmers include dairy and chocolate products, fruits, nuts, beef and pork, O’Neill said.

Trump last week gathered steel and aluminum executives at the White House to announce he would levy a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports.

Several top Washington Republicans this week publicly renounced the plan, although Trump says he won’t back down.

Bernd Lange, chairman of the European Parliament’s international trade committee, said Tuesday that the European Union would retaliate by imposing tariffs on American agricultural products.

U.S. agriculture is an easy target in international trade disputes, said Rick Ebert, who owns a dairy farm in Derry and is president of the state farm bureau.

“We’re a huge exporter of ag products, so that’s the area they would target first,” Ebert said.

That kind of trade war wouldn’t just affect the farmers who export their products.

“These tariffs can wreak havoc on our domestic markets,” he said. “… Any type of retaliation could affect prices pretty quickly.”

While he agrees that the country needs to do something about China and other countries that are dumping underpriced steel and aluminum on American markets, a trade war isn’t the solution, said Fred Slezak, a New Alexandria grain farmer.

“It is a concern whenever we have a president talking about trade wars. I don’t care what kind of war it is, nobody wins,” he said.

Slezak likely would be one of the farmers directly affected by a trade war.

“A fair amount of my crops go to East Liverpool, Ohio, where it’s loaded on barges,” he said. The grain then goes down the river to ports and gets shipped overseas, he said.

Trump has suggested he’d exempt Canada and Mexico from the tariffs if they agreed to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Farmers generally support NAFTA as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump has already pulled out of, O’Neill said.

Since NAFTA took effect in 1994, agricultural exports to Canada and Mexico have increased from about $8.9 billion to $38 billion, he said. Farmers were hoping to see a boost from the TPP and are concerned they’re being left out, he said.

“We don’t live in a vacuum, and some of these other countries are continuing to go forward with these agreements,” he said.

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1218, [email protected] or via Twitter @TribBrian.

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