Trump, tariffs, turpentine and pork

By Mac McPhail - Contributing columnist
Mac McPhail -

A couple of weeks ago, President Trump announced the plan to place trade tariffs on products imported from China. This was due to unfair trade practices by China, which affects U.S. companies, especially the steel and aluminum industry. China then announced that they were responding by increasing their tariffs on some U.S. goods. Tariffs are taxes placed on items that increase their cost inorder to discourage the purchase of that item.

All the back and forth was just interesting to me, until I read that as part of their response, China was placing a 25 percent tariff on pork products. Pork products? We all know what the pork industry means to Sampson and Duplin counties. We weren’t so concerned about all the preaching about trade. But now, as we say around here, they’ve gone from preachin’ to meddlin’.

The U.S. sold over a billion dollars in pork products to China in 2017. How will the tariff, if it is imposed, affect those sales? And how could it affect the pork industry in this area? Maybe our past can show what is possible in the future.

“Images of America – Sampson County” is a pictorial book showing the early history of Sampson County. It was published by the Sampson County History Museum with Kent Wrench as editor. The old photos and historical information make for an interesting read.

But the chapter that caught my attention was on the naval stores industry in the county in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. The book states, “North Carolina led the world in the production of naval store products from about 1720 until 1870. Sampson County led all other counties many of those years. Fortunes were made in the bountiful long leaf pine forest.”

So, what in the world are naval stores? The resin extracted from pine trees provided the raw material for the naval stores industry. Tar kept ropes and sail rigging from decaying, and pitch on a boat’s sides and bottom prevented leaking. Turpentine was also used, when combined with alcohol, as a primary source of lighting. The abundance of pine trees in the area at that time and demand for timber and turpentine made for a profitable business.

There are pictures in the book of the barrels of turpentine being stacked by the river at Boykin Bridge and Starlings Bridge being ready to be floated on barges down to Wilmington. This was an important business of significant economic impact to this area. But by the early 1900’s, it was all but over. It would soon only be remembered by old-timers and in history books. What happened?

There were several reasons. The Civil War led northern shipbuilders to look elsewhere for their naval stores. The development and wide spread use of cheaper kerosene replaced the turpentine based camphene for lighting in homes and businesses. The destruction of the long leaf pine forests by over harvesting was the final nail in the coffin of the naval stores industry. It now took 3,000 long leaf pines to obtain barely 75 barrels of raw turpentine.

The U.S. government also put tariffs on sales of raw products being sold to and purchased from Great Britain and Europe. The tariffs were placed to help northern industries, but led to resentment in the South, which depended on exports of their products.

There are always lessons to be learned from history. Actions by government which helped lead to the Civil War, technological improvements with the creation of metal hulled ships and kerosene, and loss of natural resources were among the causes that led to the downfall of the naval stores industry. It’s interesting that these same causes are among those that may affect our local economy.

Actions by government. Once again, tariffs are being proposed by our government. Once again, tariffs that are designed to help one industry will probably have a negative effect on another, like the pork industry.

Technological improvements. When the Chinese purchased Smithfield Foods in 2013, CNBC’s Tim Kemp wrote, “The Smithfield acquisition is largely seen by China-watchers and commodities experts as a move to help accelerate the development of Chinese mega-farms by grabbing U.S. know-how.”

And we know how to raise hogs, slaughter hogs, and process hogs. The day after the purchase was announced, I heard an analyst on TV state, “They’re not after the bacon, they’re after the technology.” The Chinese want to learn how we do it so well, so that they can do it themselves. And they can do it without those pesky strict environmental standards, wage and labor laws and government regulations that American pork producers face. With a population of over 1.3 billion people, the Chinese probably won’t have to import workers. Well, except to show them how to do it better.

Loss of natural resources. Loss or lack of other natural resources, like fresh water, will effect major changes in our lives in the future, as it is already affecting other areas in the world. Remember, we have those pesky environmental regulations. How will making sure we have fresh and clean water affect the livestock industry in the U.S. in the future?

Will the tariffs Trump has proposed actually be enacted? And will China actually put a tariff on pork products produced by a company, Smithfield Foods, which is owned by the Chinese? China may end up giving in on a couple of points. Then Trump can back back down, while claiming victory. So all of this tariff talk may end up being of little consequence. But there are no longer barges filled with barrels of turpentine flowing down the Black River to Wilmington. And I wonder, in one hundred years, if a hog house will only be remembered in history books and by old-timers.

Mac McPhail McPhail

By Mac McPhail

Contributing columnist

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at [email protected]

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at [email protected]