In a normal year, John Good can easily handle a rainy harvest season for his 1,300 acres of soybeans in Pointe Coupee Parish.

He would simply haul his harvested crop to a nearby grain elevator, which would buy the beans at a discount if they were more damaged than normal from rain. That elevator would sell the soybeans to an export elevator on the Mississippi River like Louis Dreyfus, which would find an overseas buyer, usually in China.

However, this has not been a normal year for Good.

“I probably have one of the best crops I’ve ever had as far as yield,” Good said. “It was the biggest disaster I’ve ever had as far as trying to sell them.”

China is by far the largest market for U.S. — and Louisiana — soybeans. This year, China has dramatically reduced its imports since tacking a 25 percent tariff on U.S. soybeans in retaliation to the Trump administration's tariffs against Chinese products. A truce, worked out between the U.S. and China over the weekend at the G-20 summit in Argentina, puts in place a 90-day cease on expanding or implementing any new tariffs but has no effect on tariffs in place that already have affected soybean farmers. 

As a result of the tariff on soybeans, grain elevators had a harder time finding buyers for the crop, and the grain stacked up in storage facilities. Farmers in turn couldn’t find grain elevators willing to buy their crop, especially because it was more damaged by rain than a normal year.

The problems have snowballed into a disaster for many Louisiana soybean farmers, especially in the southwest part of the state. Many had to leave their soybeans in the field, and more and more rain caused the crop to rot to the point where it was unusable. The beans that were usable sold for less money, as waning overseas demand drove down prices.

“I have 200 acres in the field; we’re just going to plow them under next spring,” Good said. “That’s heartbreaking right there to look at 200 acres. That’s a lot of beans. That’s a lot of money.”

Now, he and other farmers are discovering that federal aid intended to help farmers hurt by the trade dispute with China won't cover crops that weren't harvested, though an effort is underway to remedy that.

Farmers will have to rely solely on what they can get from more traditional farm programs, which won't fully cover their losses and one of which involves going into debt.

The Farm Service Agency for Louisiana, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, already has requested a weather-related disaster declaration for soybean farmers in 15 parishes, said Mike Bonnette, farm loan specialist with the agency. The parishes are Vermilion, Jefferson Davis, Calcasieu, Cameron, Acadia, Beauregard, St. Landry, Catahoula, Avoyelles, Ascension, Lafourche, Assumption, St. James, St. John the Baptist and Terrebonne.

Another four parishes — Caddo, Bossier, Pointe Coupee and Evangeline — are expected to be requested this week.

If the declarations are approved, farmers in those parishes could get access to low-interest emergency loans to help fund their losses.

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Farmers also can take advantage of crop insurance, which helps ease the burden of a bad season but does not generally make farmers whole.

To help farmers hurt specifically by the tariffs, the Trump administration has administered a separate aid program that provides $1.65 per bushel of soybeans for half their total production, with the other half expected to be funded later.

But that’s not helping many of the Louisiana farmers who are plowing under crops too damaged by weather and were trying to sell their crop in a glutted market that was limiting purchases to a better quality of beans than normal. The tariff-related law allows for aid to be sent only to producers with “harvested” acres. U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, has written a bill that would change that, allowing “planted acres” to qualify for the Market Facilitation Program to help farmers who are having to plow under or leave crops unharvested.

“We were at capacity with nowhere to send the product,” Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said. “Without those major buyers, we had significant damage to the beans, and we did not have enough of high-quality beans (to sell).”

Even if Abraham’s bill passes, Strain warns that farmers won’t be made whole, even if they have crop insurance.

He expects to see fewer soybean acres planted next year in Louisiana as a result.

Grain elevators typically buy soybeans that have a portion of the beans damaged, paying heavier discounts for higher amounts of damage. They then blend those beans with higher-quality ones to create a mix that is marketable to customers. The largest use for U.S. soybeans, both domestically and abroad, is for animal feed, according to the United Soybean Board. Some elevators in normal years would buy beans up to 20 percent to 30 percent damaged.

This year, lagging demand led elevators to grade beans far more harshly than normal, in some cases not buying soybeans that were more than 5 percent damaged. Farmers said the Louis Dreyfus grain elevator at the Port of Greater Baton Rouge was taking no higher than 5 percent damaged soybeans for a time. The latest discount schedule on its website showed it was rejecting damage higher than 10 percent as of Oct. 5. The firm’s media office didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Richard Fontenot had beans in his Vermilion Parish field that were about 10 percent damaged, with nowhere to go. As they sat in the field, relentless rains brought the damage to 20 percent, then 40 percent, and soon they were upward of 70 percent damaged and totally unmarketable.

“We weren’t even privileged to discounts at those high levels,” Fontenot said. “There was zero tolerance. … It’s a completely different environment.”

Fontenot said he plowed 1,000 acres of soybeans into the dirt.

For the marketing year that runs from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31, the U.S. exported 339,000 metric tons to China through Nov. 15, USDA figures show. That is a dramatic 97 percent decline from the same period a year ago, when the U.S. exported 13.6 million metric tons in the first month and a half of the marketing year.

While it is not clear exactly how much of Louisiana’s soybean crop was damaged, destroyed or unable to be sold, the LSU Agricultural Center conducted a survey of farmers in October and estimated as much as 15 percent of soybean acres were not harvested or were unmarketable.

Even if producers were able to market the crop, Kurt Guidry, extension economist and director of the AgCenter’s southwest region, said price discounts still affected them. He estimated about 800 of the state’s 2,346 or so soybean farmers likely had significant damage.

While China has panned U.S. soybeans this year, other markets have picked up some of the slack. For instance, Mexico, the second-largest market, has 2.3 million metric tons in purchases on the books so far this year, compared with 864,400 metric tons during the same period last year.

Still, Guidry said, it “has not been nearly enough” to offset the losses.

Kyle McCann, associate commodity director at the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, said Mexico is a “distant second” to China.

China imports roughly $20 billion in U.S. agricultural commodities annually, including 60 percent of U.S. soybeans. About 57 percent of the Louisiana crop is sold to China.

China is the state's largest trading partner overall, with $7.9 billion worth of products shipped from the state, according to Louisiana Economic Development data. Of that, $5.7 billion is agricultural products, mostly soybeans. That includes not only products from Louisiana farmers but also shipments passing through from other states via Louisiana's sprawling network of inland waterways, commercial facilities and ports.

Louisiana's soybean crop was in a precarious position with the trade dispute, McCann said, because it is set up almost entirely for exports, while some other states have domestic crushing facilities that will buy the crop. In fact, Good, the Pointe Coupee farmer, was able to haul some of his crop to a crushing facility in Mississippi.

But nothing has come close to replacing the losses, McCann said, and a wide swath of Louisiana was hit.

“It’s a pretty widespread thing,” he said. “It wasn’t just a little local matter.”

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Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.