Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Flanking both sides of the country roads 10 miles west of Poth, near Floresville, are thousands of acres where Russell Boening and his family have farmed and raised cattle since the 1950s. Recent rains have turned the rich, dark soil into trenches of soft mud with the remnants of summer harvests still scattered about.
As for the rain, he said, “Farmers don’t like to say it’s too much – we say ‘it’s enough for now.’” When it comes to the topic of global trade and tariffs affecting the agriculture industry, Boening also voices the opinions of farmers throughout the state.
As a two-term president of the Texas Farm Bureau and co-owner with his brother and youngest son of a midsize farming and ranching operation, Boening is one of many producers in the region around San Antonio who will benefit from the $4.7 billion federal aid package designed to mitigate the effects of retaliatory trade disputes.
Launched Sept. 4, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s market facilitation program (MFP) is providing payments to producers of corn, cotton, dairy, hog, sorghum, soybean, and wheat as a short-term relief strategy. Payouts are based on 2018 production numbers.
Boening said he is still working with Wilson County’s Farm Service Agency on his application for aid, which will pay $.86 a bushel for grain sorghum. The USDA received 39,447 aid applications in the first few days after the program went into effect, according to a report by the Washington Post. The agency had approved 7,851.
The aid effort put into place by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue also will administer a food purchase and distribution program, and work to develop new foreign markets.
“The market facilitation program is going to help Texas,” Boening said. “It’s going to help grain sorghum producers. Even though grain sorghum is not a major crop, it was affected quite a bit by the tariff retaliation. And it’s going to help cotton to a certain extent, which is huge in Texas.”
The Floresville area is commonly associated with peanut growers and thus the annual Floresville Peanut Festival, but most of that crop has moved further west. And though 59 percent of the city’s workforce is employed outside the county, with many working in San Antonio, farming is still a way of life there.
The Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service states that 86 percent of the total land acreage in Wilson County is being utilized for farming and ranching. About one-half of the total agricultural income comes from beef cattle production. Its biggest crops include corn and grain sorghum, or milo, which is better suited for the hot, dry climate in an area that was once farmed mostly in cotton until persistent drought and boll weevil infestations took a toll.
Boening grows some grain and hay for cattle feed and sells the rest. On a recent tour of his farm, he told the Rivard Report that to grow and harvest grain and corn, he has about $1.5 million invested in combines, tractors, front loaders, and other heavy equipment. “That’s a guess,” he said. In addition to the family, there are 10 full-time employees plus seasonal labor working the farm.
He hires an independent harvester to pick and bail his cotton crop, which he transports to a cotton gin in Lockhart, about 70 miles north. And he turns over his watermelon harvesting work to a farmer from the Rio Grande Valley every year. The 450 cows on his dairy farm, the only one remaining in the area, are milked twice a day.
Boening, 59, returned to the homestead after college and raised his family on this land marked by fence posts, a dozen nodding pump jacks, the occasional farm house, and a small cemetery.
“I loved it, I enjoyed every part of it,” he said. “We were diversified, we’re still diversified. Agriculture has changed a little bit in that respect. Operations have gotten [larger and more centralized]. … I can think of at least 10 or 12 farmers between my age and my dad’s age in this county who went out of business.”
Even on his farm, much has changed in the years since his father and an uncle started the operation with 200 acres and 60 dairy cows. Besides gradually adding to the size of their conventional farm, they also have implemented GPS technology that reduces the time spent plowing and planting. They have experimented with growing other products, including alfalfa and soybeans, the commodity that will get the lion’s share of MFP dollars.
The aid will help farmers like Boening simply stay the course, he said, allowing them to make equipment purchases or otherwise maintain and grow their enterprises. For farmers who have been in business less than five years or so, who have less equity built up, the aid is critical.
“It can be the difference between whether they can farm or not,” Boening said. “And in some small communities, ag is basically it. So, it’s not only the farmers and ranchers struggling, but all the other businesses in that area, too.”
But some farmers across the nation have protested the relief effort with calls for “trade, not aid.”
“We said from the beginning, we’d much rather get the money from the marketplace, but we understand why some of that had to be done,” he said. “We understand China probably wasn’t playing fair. So, I guess, at the end of the day, if that’s the only way you’re going to get them to hopefully play fair down the road, I guess it had to be done.”
Still, “it’s a Band-Aid,” he said, to get farmers through a year of trade battles waged by President Donald Trump. On Sept. 5, Boening met with the president when Perdue and Vice President Mike Pence invited a small group of Farm Bureau representatives and others from around the country to Washington, D.C.
The group expressed frustration with the retaliatory tariffs, which seem aimed at punishing Trump’s base of support, and discussed solutions to a looming crisis, Boening said. Overall, U.S. farmers export 20 percent of what they produce, according to the USDA.
“We’re not thrilled about the tariffs, but if it’s the only way to get a better trade deal, we’re with ya,” he said of their collective message to the Administration. “But we need some victories. Trade is important, it just needs to be fair trade.”
More help for the agriculture trade is coming from the state. On Sept. 20, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller accepted a grant for $600,000 from the State Trade Expansion Program of the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of International Trade. The Texas Department of Agriculture stated it will use the funding to expand export-related activities of small businesses in Texas and increase export dollars earned by those companies.
While the economics of ongoing trade spats directly affect farmers’ bottom lines, Boening explained that consumers in San Antonio and elsewhere won’t see prices go up at the grocery store because of the tariffs.
“The only thing that affects prices is supply and demand,” Boening said. “But trade is important because it keeps our sector strong.”
It was a campaign promise Trump made to agriculture producers and, for the most part, Boening said farmers support the president’s efforts toward negotiating better deals for the U.S.
“Now did we have to pick a fight with everybody at the same time? I don’t know. But that’s kind of his M.O. [modus operandi],” Boening said.
He views the recent negotiations with Mexico as a positive sign and hopes the U.S. can secure agreements with Canada and other countries made soon. “To me, trade is a good thing.”