USDA predicts China will buy $14 billion in goods from U.S. farmers, probably not the promised $40 billion

Farmers in Iowa
(Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The good news for American farmers is that China will buy almost $4 billion more in U.S. agricultural goods this fiscal year versus 2019, according to projections Thursday from Robert Johansson, chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The less-good news is that China pledged to buy about $40 billion in U.S. agricultural exports this year, and Johansson forecast that China will purchase about $14 billion. Those numbers aren't exactly comparable — Johansson's projection was for fiscal 2020, which ends Sept. 30.

These new figures, the first released by the USDA since the U.S. and China de-escalated President Trump's trade war by signing a "Phase One" agreement in January, mean "it's either going to be a boom fourth quarter for U.S. farmers, or that extra $12.5 billion in American agriculture purchases promised by China for this year isn't happening," Bloomberg reports. Also, the $14 billion figure doesn't include seafood and ethanol, both included in the Phase One deal.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue predicted Thursday that China would surpass the $14 billion estimate. Johansson said the X-factors include how long the COVIC-19 coronavirus debilitates China, Brazil's record crop harvest, and how much pork China needs after African swine fever decimated its herds. Outside analysts are skeptical. "There's still a lot of uncertainty out there in terms of 'will the Chinese comply?'" AgResource president Dan Basse told Bloomberg Thursday. If China ends up buying just $4 billion more from U.S. farmers, the U.S. "may have to act in terms of putting additional tariffs back on the Chinese and reinvigorating the trade war."

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"Before the Sino-U.S. trade war, China was the largest customer for U.S. ag exports with purchases of around $21 billion a year," notes Successful Farming. After Trump threw up tariffs and China retaliated by cutting back agricultural imports, farmers were hit hard, even with Trump's two huge bailouts. Trump touted the Phase One deal in December, telling farmers to buy "more land" and "bigger tractors" to prepare for a Chinese bonanza.

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