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Trade conflicts affect pulse-crop exports in Montana

December 24, 2018

Effects of the ongoing trade disputes between the United States and its international trading partners have rippled into Montana, particularly with pulse crops such as chickpeas, beans and lentils.

Pulse crops have been dealt a blow by feuds between, most notably, China and India, two primary importers of the commodities, according to state and local agriculture officials. And in recent years, Montana has grown into the No.1 producer of pulse crops in the nation.

However, pulse crop farmers will not receive any of the nearly $10 billion in trade relief promised by President Trump. The second round of direct payments to farmers was initiated earlier this month, but will go to those who produce corn, soybeans, cotton, sweet cherries and others.

“As the No. 1 producer in the country, we are disappointed it didn’t include pulse crops,” said Ben Thomas, the director of the Montana Department of Agriculture. “Close to 80 percent of our wheat and our pulse crops is exported. We rely very heavily on export markets.”

Thomas also said there are a number of factors that may shift the market that are “completely unrelated to larger trade issues” that can sometimes be confused as being part of trade wars.

For instance, some countries have started growing crops they would have otherwise imported from the U.S.

“It’s due to the fact that they had a good production and they didn’t need us and all of a sudden our exports are diverted,” Thomas said.

Mark Lalum, general manager of CHS Mountain West Coop in Kalispell, said wheat is a good example of how the Montana market may be impacted by international production.

“Wheat is a more resilient crop that can be grown elsewhere, and so as other countries, like say Italy, start growing wheat, they will be less dependent on us,” Lalum said.

In Flathead County, Lalum said wheat market has remained relatively unswayed by tariffs, but that it has fluctuated as the strength of the American dollar fluctuates.

“As the dollar gets stronger, we struggle with exports,” Lalum said. “So as this economy has gotten stronger, it gets harder for us to compete because our trading partners can get cheaper prices elsewhere.”

As it becomes more difficult to compete with lower prices, farmers will often store their wheat until they can get a fair price for the product.

“The big deal is that the U.S. dollar is strong, so it can put our commodities out of reach,” Flathead County farmer Miles Passmore said. “They [trading partners] only go to the U.S. when they can’t get it anywhere else.”

Passmore, who has farmed in Flathead County for more than a decade, said it has been difficult to secure a bid on wheat this year given the strength of the dollar, but he sees value in looking at the long term as far as fluctuation in the market.

“I’ll hold steady on my crops. If you start switching around and chasing markets you’ll never get ahead of the game,” Passmore said.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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