U.S. farmers may have a long wait - maybe until late in the next decade - before free trade with China does them much good.
Ultimately, this month's trade agreement with China could mean billions more a year in U.S. exports of wheat, pork, and other foods to the world's most populous country.
But the agreement would do nothing soon to waken U.S. farmers and their lenders from their two-year-old price nightmare.
"The overwhelming size of China and the sheer number of people who live there provides more opportunity for U.S. producers than anywhere else in the world," said Erika Batcheller, a spokeswoman for the National Farmers Union, a trade group in Washington. "But this isn't going to resolve the farm crisis. It will definitely help, but it's not the answer."
The United States agreed this month not to stand in the way of Chinese admission to the World Trade Organization. China's candidacy is expected to gain steam this week as trade delegates assemble in Seattle for talks.
But admission to the 134-nation group dedicated to open markets could take a year. And increased Chinese imports of U.S. farm goods could take years after that to ramp up.
China, whose population totals 1.2 billion, imported only $1.5 billion of U.S. farm products last year, the U.S. Agriculture Department says. Japan, with just a tenth as many people, imported more than six times as much.
The department expects the Chinese figure to dip to $979 million this year because of the Asian recession. But in a 1997 study the department found that the United States would export an additional $2.2 billion a year of food products if China and Taiwan were admitted to the World Trade Organization.
A follow-up study is planned. However, not until two to five years after China is admitted to the WTO will U.S. farmers feel the full benefit, according to many in the farm industry.
"I'd like to see the benefits to agriculture happen overnight," said Terry L. Barta, senior vice president of $58 million-asset Smith County State Bank and Trust Co. in Smith Center, Kan. "But we have to be realistic. Trade relationships take years to cultivate."
Gary Canada, president and chief executive officer of $68 million-asset Bank of England in England, Ark., said Asia's economic turmoil has been a leading reason for U.S. farmers' woes.
"It's been terrible the past couple years," Mr. Canada said. "The [U.S.] government has given enough money to farmers in deficiency payments to pull them up to a level that they can get by, but there's still a lot of stress on our farmers and our lending officers. We can't continue to rely on the federal government to bail farmers out."
Exports to China could especially help U.S. hog farms, whose supply continues to far exceed demand.
China is already the world's largest per-capita consumer of pork, but its production costs are higher than the United States', said Nick Giordano, international trade counsel with the National Pork Producers Council in Washington. The new agreement with the United States requires China to lift its ban on American pork.
"What American pork gets there now goes through the black market, and there are a lot of barriers," Mr. Giordano said. In exporting pork to China, he said, "we're just scratching the tip of the iceberg."