Durbin: Illinois farmers paying price of trade war


BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Democratic incumbent Sen. Dick Durbin gave his views on the current state of politics and his plans if reelected during the Agricultural Roundtable Candidate forum Aug. 17 hosted by the Illinois Farm Bureau.

“The challenges of droughts, floods, extreme weather events, tornados, pests, on and on and on, are all part of your normal life that you’ve accepted and the uncertainty of farming is part of your life. If it’s a good year, thank goodness, but many years are not and if they’re not you many times come to Washington and ask for a helping hand. I’ve always tried to be there in that circumstance and I will continue to be,” Durbin said.

“But I think the situation facing us now is much different. We’re not talking about natural phenomena and natural disasters. We’re talking about the political decisions that have been devastating to agriculture and in particular to Illinois agriculture. To think that farm income is down 50% in our state is a horrible statistics.

“It’s true, federal subsidies have tried to step in to make up the difference, but I know you and I know your organization and that isn’t what your in business for to go out to Washington and get a bigger subsidy. You want the market to work. You want to be able to sell the best farm products in the world and you want to be able to trade them overseas and do it in a way where you can make a profit and leave that farm to somebody in your family if they want to continue farming.”

Durbin noted several “devastating decisions” made by the current administration, including the trade war with China, small refinery waivers, and part two of the disproportionate Market Facilitation Program county payments made last year.

“China is not the most important trading partner with the United States, but it’s one of the most and it’s growing, at least it was growing in terms of opportunity. Now we’re in a trade war with them and Illinois farmers, particularly soybean growers, have paid the price. I think that was handled poorly. We decided to go it alone as a nation,” Durbin said.

“It’s not that China was not guilty of unfair trade practices, they were, but the net result of it, the president announcing that Phase One is so great. We all know better. He’s barely at 50% of what he promised for Phase One of the early agreement with China, and so we’re still lagging.

“China decided to go shopping in South America and they found Brazil, and Brazil is planting more and more soybeans, doing more and more business with China, at our expense. That, to me, was avoidable, and it’s something we have to take care of with a new president.

“Secondly, when this president in the White House decided to step in and help Ted Cruz’s reelection two years ago with these small refinery waivers. I can understand as a politician you want to help somebody in your own party get reelected. But the net result of that has been devastating. Forty percent of our corn goes into ethanol and now we see the ethanol industry already flat on its back being devastated by this COVID-19 and people using less gasoline.

“When you look at the (MFP) numbers that they gave to Illinois soybean growers because of what happened in China and compare with what they did to cotton growers, cotton growers lost 6% of their market, Illinois soybean growers lost 75% of their market and the cotton growers end up with more money. I know what’s going on. I know where the secretary of agriculture is from. He took care of his home state and he didn’t look at the numbers and apportion this fairly across the country. My friends, you may not all be in the same political place as I am, but you deserve better treatment and what this administration has done to you — you’ve got to undo.”

A question-and-answer session led by IFB President Richard Guebert Jr. followed his opening statements.

How can we expand the trade of U.S. commodities, particularly Illinois commodities around the world?

When we passed the North American Free Trade Agreement 25 years ago I was one of the few Democrats who voted for it. Some of my friends in the Democratic Party, particularly organized labor have never forgotten it, and some of my friends like you remind me and thank me for it.

I voted for the next NAFTA, the one we just went through, even though this was Trump’s bill, a Republican administration, you said it was good for Illinois farming and that’s what I wanted to hear. Having good trade agreements is the starting point. We’ve got the best products in the world, the best agriculture in the world, and we can compete with anybody.

The third thing is reliability. Are you going to be there when a new president shows up, are you going to boycott and walk away or are you going to be part of this global trade process? That’s what we’ve lost in this war with China — the reliability factor. Getting that reliability factor back is critical. We worked so darn hard for it over generations and we’ve got to restore it.

Farmers have been utilizing various practices such as no-till and cover crops to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous losses. There have been discussions about carbon credits and how this may play into the new farm bill. Where do you see these carbon credit dollars going, to agribusiness, other entities or to farmers in general?

I think it should go first and foremost to production agriculture. A lot of farmers over the last five or six years were asked if they were interested in putting a wind turbine on their farm. I think many farm operations have decided it’s a smart investment. So, they are part of the solution when it comes to moving to renewable sources of fuel and they’re being paid.

Now I’m happy to see an evolution of thinking when it comes to this whole issue of extreme weather and global warming. It is starting to invite farmers to the table and saying to them if we get into this whole issue of carbon fees; you have the potential of creating carbon credits which are economically worth money to you and your operation. We want to bring you into the conversation. Farmers ought to be sitting at that table.

What is your position on agricultural research investment priorities going forward?

It’s been hit or miss when it comes to ag research funding and I think that’s a mistake. When you talk about creating jobs and opportunities, research is the key across the board. So, I have a bill in for 5% real growth in ag research.

What our generation has got to do is invest more money in research each year — 5% real growth. What would it be good for in agriculture? Better seed varieties, better use of chemicals to you can reduce the input costs, developing new product lines for agriculture, all of these things payoff dramatically in the long haul. This whole idea of high tech in farming is inevitable and it’s a key to profitability. So, marrying those two together makes sense still.

We’ve heard Social Security is going to run out of money in the future. What are your thoughts on supporting Social Security and Medicare?

Social Security was facing bankruptcy back in the early 1980s. We made four or five changes, some of them controversial. We bought 50 years of solvency for Social Security. Now we look ahead and we think by 2035 we will not be generating enough revenue to meet the cost of Social Security. So, we’ve got 15 years to decide whether we’re going to do something about it. I want to say to my colleagues in Congress, of course you don’t want to talk about Social Security long-term, but if you don’t talk about it now, do some little things now, in 10 years you have to do much bigger things which are even less politically popular. We ought to deal with it.

The bottom line is we need to make some Social Security fixes at this point and other small fixes along the way that are going to play out and buy us at least 50 more years of solvency.

We ought to put together and group in the House, a group in the Senate, and a group of experts on the outside and come up with a plan to buy 75 years of solvency for Social Security and 75 years solvency for Medicare. Some of the parts are going to be hard and not that popular. But the other thing we have to put in here is every 10 years we have to step back and take another assessment as to whether or not it has 75 years solvency and if it doesn’t issue the same challenge. We’ve got to look at this in the long-haul if we want to do it the sensible way.

Do you have any final thoughts?

The first time I ever ran, I went to a Pike County Farm Bureau meeting. It turned out I was running against the uncle of the Pike County Farm Bureau president. Congressman Paul Findley (R-Jacksonville) was on the House Ag Committee. So, to say the deck was stacked against me at that meeting was pretty obvious. Findley was a real expert on ag policy, too. I never could get over how courteous and kind the people were in that meeting. They knew and I knew how that meeting was going to turn out. I wasn’t going to get their support, but they couldn’t have been nicer to the city boy who was trying to figure out what the heck was going on with the farms.

I’ve tried over the years to learn a lot more about farming. I think I’ve learned a lot. There’s a lot more to learn. You do it for a living and I have to understand the changes in policy and the impact it has on farming. You and I both know what’s happened to farms in the last few decades is dramatic in Illinois, concentration of ownership, larger farms and the rest of it. But from my point of view the Farm Bureau has always been an important organization to go to. You’re big and you’re diverse. You change with the times.

Even when we disagree, my door is going to be open. Even when we disagree I’m going to hear you out and listen and respectfully. You always listen respectively to me, and I think at the end of the day we’re going to agree on a heck of a lot more than we disagree on and that’s what I’m looking forward to.

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