With roughly five weeks left in a "timeout" truce between the U.S. and China in their tariff wars, soybean farmers in Louisiana and elsewhere in the country remain in a holding pattern.
Months after China, which historically buys about 60 percent of Louisiana's soybeans, slapped a 25 percent tariff on U.S. soybeans in July, pricing them out of the market, many farmers are holding on to their stocks of soybeans and waiting to see what happens with prices.
The 90-day timeout on new tariffs began Dec. 1 and runs out on March 1, with farmers hoping something constructive comes at the end.
Before the tariffs hit, the price for soybeans was $10.50 a bushel, "a good, fair price," said Donald Schexnayder, who farms with his two brothers in West Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupee parishes.
Since then, the price has dropped as low as $8.50, he said.
"We lost 20 percent of the market price that we had," Schexnayder said, adding that prices have recently been in the $9 range.
Area farmers call that a "break-even" price. Hoping for prices to rebound, many of them are storing their soybean crops in commercial grain elevators or in facilities on their own properties — if they had soybeans to bring to market.
In another blow to the state's soybean industry, heavy rains during harvest season this past fall damaged late-maturing varieties of soybeans to the point that some fields were lost to the rain or farmers were able to harvest damaged beans — still useful for the beans' end products — but not drawing the best available price.
With the market across the country slowed to a trickle, commercial grain elevators had less of the good soybeans to blend with damaged ones, leaving those mostly without a place to go.
"Everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong" in 2018, said James Guillot, a soybean farmer in Avoyelles Parish.
Bobby Skeen, executive director of the Louisiana Soybean Association, points out that for soybean farmers to receive federal aid in the form of $1.65 per bushel, a stop-gap measure while the tariff issues continue, a farmer is required to harvest the crop and bring it to market.
U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham introduced a bill that could help more soybean farmers participate in the tariff relief program.
That left some farmers having to decide whether to go to the expense of harvesting rain-ruined crops and bring them to a grain elevator for a rejection letter that would satisfy the aid requirement, Skeen said.
"You may still get $1.65 a bushel, but it doesn't even justify harvesting," he said.
Most consumers aren't familiar in everyday life with Louisiana's largest row crop, the soybean. The round, yellow bean is harvested, not for the kitchen table, but for its oil used in soy milk, tofu and other food products and, to a greater extent, for its meal used in animal feed. The latter use drives most of China's imports.
Diners are more familiar with edamame, the green, immature pod of the soybean plant, a product not produced in Louisiana, said Kyle McCann, associate commodity director and director of national affairs with the Louisiana Farm Bureau.
Louisiana soybean farmers planted approximately 1.3 million acres at the start of the 2018 planting season, McCann said. The state accounts for about 1 percent of total U.S. soybean production, which is concentrated in the Midwest, he said.
But, he said, "locally, it's an extremely important crop."
Growing conditions last year for soybeans, which are planted during April and May, were ideal.
Schexnayder said 2018 had been shaping up to be "one of those special farming years you don't forget."
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He and his two brothers saw yields on their 3,000-acre farm, R. Schexnayder and Sons, come in at 72 bushels of soybean per acre, up from an average of 64 bushels.
Having on-site storage facilities with drying equipment helped save the operation's crops despite the rainy weather that began in September and stayed for weeks, he said. But the tariff imposed by China has continued to hurt, he said.
Schexnayder said he supports President Donald Trump's end goal of balanced trade between the U.S. and China, the world's leading buyer of soybeans, but hopes "the president and the administration can start negotiating again."
The stock of U.S. soybeans being stored by farmers from the 2018 harvest, in light of the tariff issue, is at 950 million bushels, compared with 438 million bushels in 2017, said Michael Deliberto, an assistant professor with LSU Agricultural Center's Department of Agricultural Economics.
"With the trade issues, the large inventory in the U.S. and the slowing economic conditions in the world, the soybean price is going to be struggling to improve, even if there's a resolution to the trade issue," said Deliberto, who teaches farm management and agricultural policy.
Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain said it's been predicted there will be 10 percent to 15 percent less soybean production across the country in 2019.
"That's between 9 million to 10 million less acreage," Strain said.
"If those prices bump up, though, they'll plant more soybeans," he said. "The farmer is the ultimate optimist."
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China has made several soybean purchases in the U.S. during the tariff truce that began in early December, but they haven't come close to China's usual level of imports, close to 33 million tons in 2017, say those in the soybean industry.
"I'm looking at the market every day," Schexnayder said.
Charles Cannatella, who farms with his son in St. Landry Parish, said they were able to get much of their soybean crop into storage bins on their farm last fall and out-maneuver the rain.
"Seventy-five percent of the soybeans we harvested last year, we still have in bins," Cannatella said.
He said he had hoped to start shipping soybeans, but water on the Mississippi River was so high that the grain elevator couldn't offload them.