Fight Over Sorghum Offers a Taste of a Trade Retaliation

For Kansas farmer Dan Atkisson, tensions over trade surfaced weeks before President Donald Trump announced plans to slap tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

On Feb. 4, Mr. Atkisson woke up to news Beijing had launched an investigation into alleged American dumping of—and subsidies on—sorghum, a grain known as “milo” in western Kansas. Mr. Atkisson, 32 years old, grows one variety of sorghum to feed his cattle but devotes most of his fields to “grain sorghum,” which in large part is exported to China.

Beijing’s probe, which some in Kansas fear could end in painful tariffs on American sorghum, came shortly after the Trump administration imposed tariffs on solar cells and washing machines in January.

Some saw China’s move as retaliation against those tariffs. “Countries sometimes utilize these issues to send messages,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who hails from the same county as Mr. Atkisson. “In this case, the message China was sending hits agriculture in the middle of the country.”