Why Iowa farmers are worried about China's economy

Iowa farmers sweat China's economic downturn 02:05

PERRY, Iowa -- Soybeans are a mainstay of Iowa's economy, with farmers like Ron Heck helping drive the state's economic engine. But today China is holding the keys.

The beans leave the farm on freight trains bound for the West Coast, and then by boat to China. The system is so efficient that China has become a major customer of Iowa agriculture.

Last year, Iowa exported nearly a billion dollars in products to China; Soybeans made up $240 million. Farmers in Iowa put it in different terms: one of every four rows of soybeans goes to the Chinese. But there are growing signs of trouble.

CBS News

China's economic slowdown already has hit Wall Street. On the presidential campaign trail Donald Trump warns about the threat from China every chance he gets. And no one is watching more closely than the farmer in Iowa.

"If China really slows down here we will see crop prices decline even further and that will mean some economic tough times here for the agriculture sector in Iowa and across the nation," said economist Chad Hart, a professor at Iowa State University.

Ron Heck CBS News

That outcome could have devastating consequences.

"It's almost unimaginable," said Ron Heck. "If you suddenly lose a quarter of your market, what do you do? There's no other China on the planet where you could sell the surplus. No one can eat that much."

One thing going in Iowa's favor: China buys U.S. soybeans for a fraction of the cost of growing their own. Farmers give Trump credit for raising concerns about China, but they say the economic relationship has to continue.

  • Jan Crawford
    Jan Crawford On Twitter»

    Jan Crawford is CBS News' chief legal correspondent and based in Washington, D.C.