The summer of 2017 represented new pastures for beef exporters in the United States. The Chinese market once again reopened to American beef. One farmer in the U.S. state of Virginia even went on a government trade mission, but the current trade war has left beef exporters on edge.
CGTN’s Jim Spellman filed this report from Virginia.
For decades Laurel Springs Farm, in rural Virginia, specialized in dairy products. It became less and less profitable over the years. To survive, things had to change. In 2013, they gave up on the dairy business.
“We focus primarily on high-end beef now. Raising sustainable, all natural, high-end beef,” said owner Seth Umbarger.
His family has farmed this land for five generations. He was born in the area, and his ancestors are buried in a small cemetery overlooking a pasture.
Seth runs the farm with his wife Courtney. Their beef is served in local restaurants and sold at the Whole Foods grocery chain and at nearby farmers markets. To really succeed, however, they are focused on a new market far from home: China.
A mad cow outbreak in 2003 in the U.S. led to China halting beef imports. In the summer of 2017, the Chinese market was once again opened to American beef.
U.S. beef must now meet stringent safety requirements. Each cow must be less than 30-months-old, be traceable from birth through the supply chain to China, and not be treated with drugs used to promote growth.
The Umbargers saw an opportunity. In May, Seth traveled to China on a U.S. government trade mission. He met with dozens of buyers in Guangzhou and Shenzhen who wanted to purchase his beef, and lots of it.
“They were very excited. They wanted the beef right then. They wanted to make a deal that day,” Umbarger said.
“It was a perfect match. They want sustainable beef, They want traceable which is kind of what we specialize in…they want all natural which is no growth hormones. No use of antibiotics ever. That’s exactly what they want,” he explained.
He used WeChat to stay in touch with his new friends and potential buyers. The demand from China was so high they even began reaching out to other Virginia farmers hoping to find more supply.
Now the Umbargers fear their plans for the future are at risk. As the trade conflict heats up, those potential buyers in China say U.S. beef from this farm and others is simply too expensive.
U.S. beef heading to China now faces 37 percent in total tariffs. None of those potential customers are willing to buy the Umbarger’s meat at those prices. The ongoing trade conflict has put the future of their farm at risk.
“It’s a dream that has come to life and to think that it can come to an end and the fact that it would end at the fifth generation is hard to swallow sometimes,” said Courtney Umbarger.
Seth voted for President Trump, but says he now regrets that vote. However, he remains hopeful Beijing and Washington will find a solution so their family can continue to farm this land for generations to come.
“Hopefully, this is still a negotiation. Negotiations aren’t over. I’m hoping the tariffs are dropped so we can pursue this avenue to sell our beef in China,” he said.