How Trump’s trade war is hitting and often hurting Pennsylvania farmers

Tariffs are one more challenge for a struggling dairy industry

  • Ed Mahon

When the tariffs started, Shawn Hernley knew other countries would retaliate.

But he figured — in the big picture — the tariffs would be good for the United States economy.

Then the trade war with China, Mexico and other countries dragged on. Milk prices remained low. And a heifer Hernley could sell for $2,500 to $3,000 a few years ago now might sell for $1,100.

Hernley, a 61-year-old Lebanon County dairy farmer, is one of many farmers struggling in Pennsylvania, a state that is second only to Wisconsin for its number of dairy farms.

The tariffs between the United States and other countries have hit soybean, pork and dairy farmers the hardest in Pennsylvania, according to Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

And the issue is especially problematic for Pennsylvania’s about 6,000 dairy farms. The industry has been struggling with low prices because of a global oversupply. In 2016 — before President Donald Trump took office and before the trade war began — the state lost 120 dairy farms, according to the Center for Dairy Excellence in Pennsylvania.

Hernley has seen friends sell off their cattle and find whatever work they can.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Hernley said, adding, “It’s a passion, and it’s who you are. And that is being taken away from you through no fault of your own.”

The tariffs are one more challenge for the industry. Jayne Sebright, executive director of the Center for Dairy Excellence, said the trade war has had an impact on the the amount of dairy products, particularly powdered milk, sent to China, as well as cheese products sent to Mexico.

There have been some positive signs for Pennsylvania farmers hoping for relief from the trade war and other assistance. But even then, there are limits.

  • In the fall, the United States reached an agreement with Canada and Mexico to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, but the new pact hasn’t gone into effect yet. 
  • In December, the BBC reported that China bought U.S. soybeans for the first time since the trade war began, although it was uncertain whether a broader deal would follow.
  • The December farm bill had general provisions helpful to farmers, Sebright said, but some have been delayed because of the partial federal government shutdown.

Sebright said dairy farms in Pennsylvania tend to be smaller than in other parts of the country, and it’s harder for those farmers to weather this type of downturn.

Before the Farm Show officially began, as officials gathered to unveil a half-ton, superhero-themed butter sculpture, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf acknowledged some of the challenges facing the dairy industry.

His administration recently announced a new $5 million grant program to help dairy farmers. Lawmakers approved the grant program as part of the state budget in June.

Among other things, the program will encourage farmers to expand their products, such as by offering cheese and yogurt, and to use organic production methods.

At the federal level, the Trump administration announced in July that it would make an estimated $12 billion in government assistance available to farmers, including soybean, dairy and hog producers.

O’Neill, with the PA Farm Bureau, said that funding might help some farmers pay bills, but he said it’s not enough to make them whole. And some payments will be on hold because of the shutdown.

“Farmers really don’t want this money. They want a free market system,” O’Neill said, as he stood near a Pennsylvania Farm Bureau booth where people could pick up pink pig hats and take photos in front of a farm picture. “They want to be able to sell their products on the open market, get the best price they can possibly get.”

Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, stands for a portrait at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex on Jan. 8, 2019.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, stands for a portrait at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex on Jan. 8, 2019.

‘Never want to come to that’

Miranda Hernley, 24, arrived at the Farm Show Tuesday and planned to stay there with her family’s heifers until Saturday. She brought a cot to sleep near the animals.

She splits her time between working on the family’s dairy farm and working at a feedmill — where farmers buy food to feed their animals.

At a Christmas party, the feedmill owner told employees that company gave some feed away for free to farmers who didn’t have the money to pay. So that’s one side of the industry she sees.

And on the other side, the thought of leaving the dairy industry feels like it’s always in the back of her mind. “But you never want to come to that,” Miranda Hernley said.

On Tuesday, her father, Shawn Hernley, was clipping the hair of his white and brown heifers inside the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex.

He took a break to talk to a reporter about the tariffs, which he supported at first. At one point — just as Hernley finished talking about how much less heifers sell for now — a man walked up to him asked if there were any animals his child could pet. Shawn Hernley pointed to the end of a row.

“The calf on the end you can certainly pet, yeah,” Shawn Hernley told the man.

He turned back to the reporter. These days, Hernley is more on the fence about the tariffs. He thinks they’ve been a burden on the economy. He’s skeptical that any deals would help smaller farms.

“As long as you have big money involved, mega corporations — yeah, the family farm has such a small voice,” Hernley said.

Lebanon County dairy farmer Shawn Hernley clips the hair of one of his heifers at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex on Jan. 8, 2019.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

Lebanon County dairy farmer Shawn Hernley clips the hair of one of his heifers at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex on Jan. 8, 2019.

‘Trump says he loves the farmers’

Jill Dice grew up on a dairy farm and married a dairy farmer. She and her husband can only afford staying in the dairy business because her husband’s family has multiple businesses.

She thinks the tariffs have had a big impact on her family’s Lebanon County farm.

“Trump says he loves the farmers. Well, it’s really not helping us right now,” Dice said. “And I’m not political in any way. …We just need help so that we can survive.”

Jason Nailor, a 36-year-old Cumberland County dairy farmer, voted for Trump in 2016 and remembers telling his wife that his only fear was that Trump would make other countries mad.

“Sure enough, he did that,” Nailor said.

Jill Dice stands for a portrait at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex on Jan. 8, 2019.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

Jill Dice stands for a portrait at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex on Jan. 8, 2019.

But Nailor said before the tariffs went into effect, he locked in the price of soybeans he sells to a local mill. It was a risk, but it ended up benefiting him this past November. He sold those soybeans for what they were going for before the tariffs.

He doesn’t have a soybean rate locked in for the next season, and he’s not not sure how many he’ll plant. As for milk, he doesn’t think the tariffs were that big of a factor.

And Nailor has received payments from the federal government as part of the $12 billion program Trump announced last year. He said he’s talked to a lot of other farmers who were skeptical of those payments.

“I’ve been, like, you know, ‘Hey, it’s the real deal, guys,’ ” Nailor said.

Still, there are a lot of questions for Nailor and farmers like him.

His day starts around 4 a.m. to milk cows. Sometimes, he wonders why he’s doing it.

When asked if he’s thought about leaving the dairy industry, Nailor laughed.

“Every day for the last couple years now,” he said. “But it’s going to be a decision we’re going to look at hard at the end of this year, if things don’t turn around.”

Before he became a farmer, Nailor studied electronics engineering at a technical institute. He worked with computers.

Maybe, he has sometimes thought, he’ll go back to that.

Ed Mahon can be reached at 717-421-2518.


Shawn Hernley and daughter Miranda Hernley stand for a portrait at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex on Jan. 8, 2019.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

Shawn Hernley and daughter Miranda Hernley stand for a portrait at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex on Jan. 8, 2019.

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