Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Farmers Gave Trump Their Votes. Now They’re Looking for a Return

  • Trump to address Farm Bureau gathering amid concerns on trade
  • Cutting taxes, regulations keep president popular in farm belt

Farmers are looking for a sign from President Donald Trump that their issues mean as much to him as their votes do.

Trump is scheduled to speak at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual conference in Nashville on Monday, the first sitting president to address the group in 26 years. He’ll be getting a warm welcome, even though there are policies his administration is pursuing that run counter to some farm interests.

“It doesn’t get any better than to have the president recognize the importance of farmers and ranchers to the rural economy,” said Kalena Bruce, a 32-year-old rancher from Cedar County, Missouri, where Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a 5 to 1 margin in the 2016 presidential election. “Rural America still supports President Trump.”

As he approaches his first anniversary in office, the president is struggling to fulfill his campaign promises to segments of his voting base, including farmers, and his approval ratings have been stuck at historically low levels. 

Several of his policy stances -- from threatened withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement, to immigration restrictions that could choke the flow of migrants to harvest U.S. crops, to cutting crop-insurance payments popular in agriculture -- run contrary to the positions represented by Farm Bureau, the biggest U.S. farmer organization.

Rally the Troops

Still, Trump’s ties to rural voters are far from broken despite some strains, said Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska. An event that brings together individual farmers and representatives of major agribusinesses gives him a venue to shore up support.

“A lot of farm interests have felt overlooked or ignored in the first year of the Trump administration,” he said. “Farm Bureau is the place where you can get the most people in one place and rally the troops.”

The White House declined to preview the president’s address.

The Farm Bureau has a far reach, with offices in 2,795 of the nation’s 3,144 counties. It’s long been recognized as the top farmer group in Washington, where agribusiness is listed as the 10th-biggest industry in campaign contributions, just behind energy and ahead of construction, transportation and defense, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. The Farm Bureau spent more than $3 million on lobbying in 2017, second only to Monsanto Co. among organizations that serve farmers.

Swing Voters

It’s also long been associated with conservative politics, holding more influence in Republican administrations. Farmers, though, are also swing voters, especially in states such as North Dakota and Indiana, where incumbent Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly are up for re-election in 2018. Trump won both states by wide margins last year.

While other parts of the U.S. economy are going strong, farmer finances have struggled since the end of a commodities boom in 2013. Profits in 2017 are estimated at less than half the record levels of four years earlier.

Crop prices have been stable, but low. Futures for corn, the most-valuable crop, closed last year at just over $3.50 a bushel, a fall of 0.4 percent from the previous year. Livestock has fared better, with cattle futures traded in Chicago up 4.7 percent, but well below boom-time prices. That has farm-state members of Congress calling for more generous payments under a new law governing farm subsidies due this year.

Trade Surplus

Farming is one of the few sectors of the U.S. economy with a trade surplus, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has touted the benefits of the NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico, even as Trump has threatened to scrap the deal. The sluggish economy and at-odds position on trade and other issues, such as immigration, that many farmers see as necessary for their harvests, means farmer support for Trump can’t be taken for granted, said former Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican who served as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Other than a June speech in Iowa in which he called for investment in rural broadband, Trump hasn’t talked a lot about farmers, Lugar said. 

“Somebody probably said to the Trump hierarchy that the president better go to Farm Bureau and show some interest in agriculture,” Lugar said. “Changes to the corporate tax may create jobs, but this is not reflected in the lives or outlooks of many farmers.”

Plenty to Like

Bruce said she’s looking for “reassurance that we aren’t going to lose our exports,” and hopes that Farm Bureau might help sway Trump a bit on trade while he’s in Nashville. But she, and other farmers planning to attend the speech, said they have plenty to like.

“One of Trump’s campaign promises was he would get regulations off our back, and you can see that happening,” said Scott VanderWal, a corn and soybean grower near Volga, South Dakota, 50 miles north of Sioux Falls. He cited White House moves to roll back a water rule detested by many farmers and his support for corn-based ethanol as two examples of Trump having agriculture at heart. The president would get more done if Congress were more aligned with him, VanderWal said.

“Everyone is frustrated with Congress,” said VanderWal, whose county, which includes a state university, gave Trump 53 percent of its vote. “The president has tried to do a lot of things, but members of Congress can’t get on the same page.”

Positive Signs

Josh Ogle, a 40-year-old grower of cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat in Lincoln County, Tennessee, just north of the Alabama border, said he is “very pleased with the president’s first year.” His county gave Trump 78 percent of its vote in 2016.

“Secretary Perdue at USDA, Scott Pruitt at EPA, just to see these men in charge who are bullish about rural America and want to know your concerns. They’re taking a common-sense approach to rural America’s problems” by lowering taxes and relaxing regulations to create jobs, he said.

Those moves are more important to him than controversial tweets, accusations of collusion with Russia, or other daily conflicts from the White House, he said. “I don’t dwell on it,” said Ogle, who said he spends 15 to 20 minutes a day on Twitter and cited Fox News and ABC as news sources. “You try to decipher who you can read and who you can trust.”

He said he’d like more details on the new tax law. “There are a lot of unknowns on that, and scare tactics from groups across the country that don’t want anything President Trump does to be seen as positive,” he said. “I really try to go for facts.”

— With assistance by Jennifer Epstein

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