Battered by billion-dollar hits from U.S. trade policy and historic storm damage, all piled on top of high property taxes and low farm commodity prices, Nebraska agriculture is reeling.
“I think we’re on a precipice,” Steve Nelson, president of the 61,000-member Nebraska Farm Bureau, says.
“Everyone has to be very, very careful in order not to find themselves over the edge.”
Before historic March storms raged through Nebraska with a blizzard and heavy rainfall, triggering massive snow melt and propelling huge chunks of dislodged ice downstream, ripping through bridges and dams, tearing up roads and spreading across farm fields, Nebraska agriculture already was in economic distress.
“We already had tight economic conditions in almost everything we grow and raise in Nebraska,” Nelson said during an hourlong interview.
“Some farmers were breaking even; some were not.
“Those are catastrophic losses as a result of the storm,” he said.
“Unfortunately, it’s unlikely everyone survives. We will see the effects over the next few years.”
Nebraska’s ag economy already had taken an estimated billion-dollar blow from retaliatory tariffs imposed as a result of Trump administration trade policy.
“A tariff war is not good at all for agriculture,” Nelson said.
Add on the loss of ag markets when the president abruptly withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement at the very beginning of his administration two years ago.
No U.S. commodities were positioned to benefit more from the Trans-Pacific Partnership than beef and pork, former U.S. secretary of agriculture and former U.S. trade representative Clayton Yeutter noted shortly before his death.
“There were a lot of opportunities there for beef particularly,” Nelson said.
“OK, now we need to get bilateral agreements and here we sit.
“Every day that goes by, our competitors are taking a share of the market we had or should have had.
“We need to get deals done,” Nelson said, and the new United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement “needs to be passed quickly by Congress.”
That’s the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Closer to home, Nebraska agriculture needs property tax relief, he said, and the outlook in the Legislature is not very rosy.
“The root of the problem is how we fund K-12 schools,” Nelson said.
Sens. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn and Mike Groene of North Platte have attempted to address that problem with legislation proposing major local property tax relief delivered through state aid to rural schools, Nelson said.
“That bill would address many of the things the Farm Bureau talks about,” he said, “but it’s a big undertaking.”
However, that proposal (LB289) appears to be blocked in the Legislature, largely by urban opponents concerned about the impact on funding for big-city schools and costs imposed on low-income residents who would pay more in sales taxes.
The $51 million annual increase in funding for the state’s property tax credit program proposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and endorsed by the Legislature is “not enough” to adequately address the problem, Nelson said.
“That is a drop in the bucket,” he said.
But Nelson is cool to participation in an initiative petition drive to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2020 general election ballot that would provide a refundable state income tax credit for 35 percent of local property taxes paid.
“We believe the best place to fix this is in the Legislature,” he said.
“Even if a ballot proposal were to pass — and I don’t think it would pass easily — it still would involve the Legislature to implement it.
“We’re going to keep our focus on fixing this in the Legislature,” he said.
“This should be about compromise and we’re always willing to work with anyone.”
Although there is disagreement with President Donald Trump’s trade policies in farm country, Nelson said, he believes the president “still has a great deal of support” in rural Nebraska.
“But the sooner we get deals done and get back to a free and open market, the better off we will be.”
Nelson, an Axtell farmer, is serving his eighth year as president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau.