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Local farmers on high alert as China boycotts U.S. agricultural goods 

It's been more than a year since the Trump administration launched its first round of tariffs on Chinese imports to the U.S., making trade a hot topic for all Americans. But tariffs and trade are issues that weigh even more heavily on the minds of local farmers and ranchers, who fear that their businesses will eventually be leveraged during negotiations.

"If you ask any farmer, trade is a big deal," said Brent Burchett, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau.

Despite more than a year and a half of tariffs on a plethora of Chinese and American goods, farmers in SLO County have largely made it through the trade war with China unscathed, Burchett said. That's partly because SLO County's crops aren't being exported to China.

Last year, the SLO County Agricultural Commissioner's Office inspected and certified 3,700 shipments of agricultural goods to 48 countries, according to the 2018 crop report, and China wasn't even close to being a top importer of local products. The county's farmers and ranchers sent out three shipments to China in 2018—756 bags of wood shavings, 30 oak barrels, and 38 bunches of cut flowers.

So Burchett said SLO County farmers aren't overly worried about China's recent decision to stop buying U.S. agricultural products, a move that was announced in early August in response to the Trump administration's most recent tariffs on Chinese goods.

Still, Burchett said the Central Coast wine industry will likely be most impacted by China's boycott. County agricultural commissioners don't keep track of exported bottles of wine because bottled wine isn't inspected for pests. But California as a whole ships a lot of wine to China.

In 2017, $185.3 million worth of wine traveled from California to China, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture. Only pistachios and almonds followed the same route more often.

Wine grapes are the No. 1 crop in SLO County, valued at more than $276 million. Any time there's a depressed market for wine itself, Burchett said that impacts local wine grape growers and the county's ag industry as a whole.

China was also the 10th top importer of agricultural goods grown in Santa Barbara County last year, according to that county's 2018 crop report, and Burchett said that could have a direct impact on farmers in SLO County. When a market is lost for a neighboring supplier of a crop, it creates more competition locally, he said.

Local farmers and ranchers are keeping an even closer eye on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which Burchett said could have truly significant effects on Central Coast agriculture. Canada and Mexico are top importers of goods produced in both SLO and Santa Barbara counties, and Burchett said the ag industry hopes to have year-round access to commodities in both countries.

The SLO County Farm Bureau planned to meet with Congressman Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) on Aug. 19 to discuss the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which is still slowly making its way through the Legislature.

"We don't know how it's all going to fall out at the end of the day," Burchett said.

That uncertainty is something farmers across the nation have been forced to live with since the White House imposed its first round of tariffs on Chinese imports to the U.S. in January 2018, triggering a string of tit-for-tat retaliatory tariffs on goods between the two countries and others.

Although the Trump administration's tariffs are designed to boost U.S. production of goods and were launched in an effort to protect American businesses from Chinese undercutting and intellectual theft, the resulting trade war is weighing heavily on the agricultural industry.

When the first series of tariffs were presented, corn, soybean, and other farmers in the Midwest reported pricing declines and voiced concerns over potential billions of dollars in losses. After several additional increased tariffs were recently imposed on American, Chinese, Canadian, Mexican, and European goods, including steel and aluminum, UC Davis released an extensive study in August 2018 estimating that the trade dispute could cost California fruit and nut farmers roughly $3.4 billion in losses annually.

China's recent decision directing its state-owned enterprises to stop buying American agricultural goods is the latest hit in the ongoing saga. But Dave Kranz, director of media relations with the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the boycott isn't expected to impact specialty crops typically grown in California, which are largely imported by public and private companies in China.

"Our understanding is that the action taken by China applies specifically to state-owned enterprises," Kranz wrote in an email to New Times, "and may not (at least so far) extend to private Chinese firms that import most of the nut, fruit, and vegetable crops that California sends there." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.

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