WILLISTON, N.D. — Of the six states that lie in the Minneapolis Fed’s six-state region, North Dakota has been hit hardest by the trade war.
Just how hard, however, is difficult to pin down.
The Minneapolis Fed lists soybeans, car parts, pork, adhesive films and tapes, combine harvesters and paper towels as among the biggest export losers for the first four months of 2019 for North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana, and Michigan.
North Dakota showed the biggest impact of the six states, at 14%, while neighboring Montana had a 3% drop. That compares to a national dip in exports of 1% for the same period.
The statistics the Minneapolis Fed is using, however, can be misleading at the state level, making it difficult to follow the damage done by the trade war. Particularly when it comes to agricultural commodities.
Take soybeans as an example.
Commodities like soybeans are mixed together from multiple states at storage facilities. By the time they are exported, there’s no way to tell which state they came from. Their origin is typically listed as the state where the port is located. That tends to significantly under-report ag exports from an inland state like North Dakota.
In 2017, North Dakota exported an estimated $1.2 billion in soybeans. That’s 19 times what was reported in Commerce Department data.
“No one really has any brilliant thoughts on how to collect this data,” said Nancy Johnson, executive director of the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association.
Her organization estimates that about 20% of the state’s last soybean harvest is still somewhere in North Dakota.
“That’s based on all kinds of variables and lots of art,” she added. “And very little science.”
Other key ag exports from the Minneapolis Fed district include wheat, pork and beef products. They all have similar issues when it comes to counting the trade war’s costs.
New home for N.D. beans?
North Dakota already has the equivalent of an eight-lane super highway to China when it comes to soybeans.
“We have all the terminals and railway capacity, and we have the export terminals in the Pacific Northwest that can handle soybeans quickly and efficiently,” Johnson said. “So we obviously are the most interested in looking that direction.”
Finding a different home for all the soybeans that are no longer being bought by China won’t necessarily be easy.
“Between us and Europe there are a lot of soybeans fields,” she pointed out. “The soybeans that are grown further east (of North Dakota) would go to Europe, and much of the markets in Africa are being developed and served off the Gulf Coast.”
Canada also grows soybeans, so isn’t a likely destination for North Dakota beans. The interior of the U.S. also has many soybean fields between North Dakota and other crushing plants. They are an unlikely destination as well.
Developing new markets is not a short-term process, Johnson added. It took 15 years to grow the market with China to the market it was before tariffs.
“We have been working on any potential new market to understand what the needs are and how the market works,” she said. “Do they import whole beans or meal? What is the size of their hog herd? What is the size of the chicken flock?”
Johnson estimated that market development has been ongoing with non-China markets for 10 years now.
“It’s a long-term effort,” she said.
Another option that’s still seemingly in the air is a soybean crushing plant near Jamestown.
It’s been the subject of recent litigation, with Spiritwood Energy Park seeking to terminate an agreement to build a soybean crushing plant there. But a judge has just granted a preliminary restraining order to stop them from terminating their agreement with North Dakota Soybean Processors, which said it has already spent $7 million in development costs on a plant there.
The plant, announced in 2017, is being designed to process 125,000 bushels of soybeans per day, or roughly 42 million bushels annually. The cost to construct it is $287 million.
China, meanwhile, is set to visit Argentina in August to inspect its soymeal crushing plants. Argentina has been trying to get into the Chinese soymeal market for decades.
Optimism still reigns
While China has courted countries like Brazil and Argentina for its soybeans, many farm groups have expressed optimism that the total demand for soybeans is great enough that eventually, China — or alternately a country supplying China — will be forced to buy U.S. Soybeans.
In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture did confirm private sales to China of 68,000 metric tons of soybeans in 2019/20 — the first such purchase by a private buyer since the trade ware began. It’s a small fraction of what China used to buy from the U.S., however.
Demand for soybeans has meanwhile taken a huge hit, thanks to an outbreak of African Swine Fever. It’s estimated has killed as many as 50% of China’s pig herds has been killed as a result.
In the meantime, while all these matters are being sorted out, Johnson said Market Facilitation Payments have been a help.
“But at a certain point, we’d like to sell soybeans, as opposed to getting the MFP,” she said. “We’d prefer to grow soybeans to be sold to somebody. So we are sort of in a weird place, because our soybeans are not being sold to our customers. It’s a very challenging situation.”