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Amid trade war that’s hurting their bottom line, many farmers are conflicted about Trump

Amid trade war that’s hurting their bottom line, many farmers are conflicted about Trump
President Trump greets supporters on arriving in New Orleans on Monday to address the American Farm Bureau Federation. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

A year ago, President Trump received a hero's welcome at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 99th annual convention in Nashville, cheered for rolling back regulations, revamping an Obama administration water rule and for being the first president to address the group in 25 years.

In New Orleans on Monday, he made good on last year's promise to return for the group's centennial meeting.

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“What can I do? I like farmers,” Trump told the appreciative crowd after traveling from a snow-covered Washington that remained frozen in a partial government shutdown for a 24th day, in a funding impasse over his proposed southern border wall.

But the cheers he received, from those who waited in hourlong security lines to hear him speak inside the city's riverfront convention center, belied a more complicated relationship with America's farmers, who have largely supported him.

Most still do, though they have been hurt in recent months by the tariffs that top trading partners have slapped on U.S. farm products, in retaliation for the tariffs Trump first imposed on their country’s goods. And now, a shuttered government isn’t processing the subsidy checks that many farmers rely on.

“If there's one thing farmers need and want, it's reliability and predictability,” said Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

“The angst you will find is, he has not provided that in the tariff situation around trade,” Johansson said. “But when he ran, we knew exactly what we were getting.”

Although Trump won support across the country’s heartland, he has long been clear about his hard-line, protectionist positions on trade. As president, he has followed through on ending the United States’ participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the farm bureau supported for the new markets it would have opened in other Pacific Rim nations; he renegotiated the quarter-century-old North American Free Trade Agreement; and he’s taken a confrontational approach to try to reverse the U.S. trade deficit with China, so far unsuccessfully.

For many farmers, the trade tension especially with China has meant unpredictability, lost market share and lower prices for their products, while the shutdown has left some growers unable to get loans and subsidies essential for the looming season. The Agriculture Department is among the agencies shut down, its annual funding hostage to the standoff over the $5.7 billion Trump wants for a wall.

The president, in effect, counseled patience. “We’re doing trade deals that are going to get you so much business, you won’t believe it,” he told them. “A lot of great things are going to happen.”

“We are fighting for the American farmer and we are fighting for the American dream and for the products made and grown with pride right here in the USA,” Trump said near the end of his speech. “The greatest harvest is yet to come.”

Yet Trump spent much of his speech talking about illegal immigration and the wall he wanted to build. The president insisted that, despite his tough talk, he would make it easier for foreign farm workers to cross the border for seasonal jobs — comments which drew some of the biggest applause.

Although Trump made the case that he had been a friend to farmers, he did not directly acknowledge the tough times that they now faced because of his trade and border-wall actions.

He touted the 2017 tax cuts that reduced the number of individuals subject to the estate tax, although, contrary to his and Republicans’ claims, few of the wealthy beneficiaries are small farmers and ranchers. The president also boasted of his efforts to cut regulations, increase the availability of corn-based ethanol at gas stations and pass a farm bill in December.

But the tit-for-tat tariffs since Trump began the current trade war — the United States has imposed tariffs on $250 billion worth of goods, or half of all imports from China, which in turn has put new tariffs on $110 billion in U.S. goods, or 85% — have cost small farmers like Jerry and Nicky Cox. They run a farm in Four Oaks, N.C., and have seen the market for their tobacco dry up now that China is no longer buying it from American producers.

The Trump administration in September directed that $12 billion in assistance be doled out to producers of commodities such as corn, cotton, pork, soybeans and wheat that have been hardest hit by retaliatory tariffs. But now, because of the government shutdown, the Coxes and other farmers haven't been able to turn in their applications for relief because the Farm Services Agency offices in their counties are closed.

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“I’ll wait it out,” Jerry Cox said, “and one day maybe I'll turn it in.”

Unlike Jerry, wife Nicky did not vote for Trump in 2016 and is less forgiving of the uncertainty surrounding the business their family has run for 50 years.

“Some of the things that are going on now do hurt us, in terms of the tariffs,” she said. “We're feeling it.”

Jerry remains hopeful, though he says he's not sure if he'll vote for Trump again in 2020.

“I think he knows he's got to help the farmers, and I think he'll come around,” he said. “Most farmers don't want a handout. They just want to be able to sell their crop at a profitable price. I think most farmers are like that.”

Many of the members of the farm bureau, more than 6 million farmers across the country, run small operations. Yet on trade policy, if not on some other areas, their sentiments align with large agricultural businesses.

“The universal view is that farmers in middle America want trade, not aid,” said one Farm Bureau executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Everyone wants to make an honest living on their own terms.

“Almost across the board,” the executive said, “our members know the tariffs aren't good, but a lot of them are defending their votes from 2016 and have a hard time admitting they could have been wrong.”

Albert C. Beatty, who has overseen his family’s 500-acre farm in Harrells, N.C., for 45 years, didn’t vote for Trump. He is blunt about the effect of both the tariffs, whiche he said had cut profits in half on his soybean crop, and now the government shutdown, which is delaying the processing of loans he needs to begin planting timber next month.

“We need to be getting all our loans squared away so we can get operating money by March,” Beatty said. If the government isn’t open “by the end of the month, we're hurting.”

According to Johansson, the California Farm Bureau Federation president who runs a small olive and citrus farm in Oroville, just north of Sacramento, many farmers agree with Trump’s rationale for taking on China, but the effect of China’s retaliatory tariffs has been severe, especially on the state’s walnut, citrus and sweet cherry farmers.

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“They have really felt the pain,” he said, “because 25% of all our citrus from California is exported.”

California citrus, Johansson said, accounted for $2 billion of the $3 billion in citrus that China was importing annually before the tariffs took effect.

Trump’s imposition of tariffs on other top trading partners, including Canada and Mexico, have remained in place even after they agreed in principle to the new trade deal, which still must be ratified by each country’s legislature.

Removing the tariffs, Johansson believes, would provide significant relief to farmers who count on Canada and Mexico purchasing what they produce.

“One out of every two acres in California that we farm has to go into the export market,” he said. “That's what keeps the prices up is the demand. When that goes away, that's when things get ugly even for the little guy like myself.”

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