Farm country helped elect President Trump. What is Trump going to do for farm country?

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Donald Trump speaking with farmers in Florida during the fall campaign.

President Donald Trump gets attention for making bold, outlandish claims and stoking controversy, on everything from immigration and trade to alleged “voter fraud” and the size of the crowd at his inauguration.

On one significant topic, however, the president has not said much at all: agriculture. Though Trump swept into office on the strength of his support in farm country, he personally has not spent much time articulating a vision for the primary industry that supports rural America.

That’s created some uneasiness in the Minnesota agriculture community, which, like those in other states, is suffering from a recent downturn in crop prices. The state’s agriculture leaders hope to work with Trump, but it’s an ambiguous hope at this point: to them, he’s largely an unknown quantity.

To some, that’s troubling, particularly as Congress begins to consider a new farm bill, the massive legislative package that shapes U.S. farm policy every five years.

Left to fill in the blanks — at least for now — what is Minnesota farm country expecting from President Trump?

‘Nobody’s real comfortable yet’

During the campaign, Trump was not utterly silent on agriculture issues, but typically only weighed in only when he really had to.

Like January in Iowa, for example, when Trump voiced his support for the renewable fuel standard (RFS), the federal policy that sets the amount of corn-based ethanol that goes into gasoline in the U.S., in a speech just weeks before that state’s caucus.

In August, also in Iowa, Trump gave his first and only real address on ag issues, mostly speaking in broad terms about the importance of farming, ethanol, and the need to relax federal environmental regulations to help farmers.

Since winning the election, however, Trump has not signaled that ag will be a key priority. The position of secretary of agriculture was the last one Trump filled: He selected former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, 71 days after he was elected. (Barack Obama took 43 days to appoint former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to the post.)

All of this doesn’t sit especially well with Minnesota ag leaders. They are in the unusual position of having to read the tea leaves from Trump’s appointments, advisers, and scant public statements on agriculture to divine his direction.

Seventh District Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, is usually quick with an observation on ag policy. But he declined to comment for this story, with a spokesperson saying the direction of the new administration wasn’t clear enough yet for Peterson to say much of anything.

Gary Wertish

According to Gary Wertish, the new president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, which leans to the left, there’s always uncertainty in a presidential transition. But this, he said, is different: “I think we definitely maybe have a higher level of uncertainty,” he said. “We have a big turnover.”

“Nobody’s real comfortable yet,” he added. “No one knows what direction they’re going to go. The ag secretary is the last one nominated. … It makes you a little worried that ag isn’t a top priority.”

Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, which leans to the right, agreed, to a point: “It’s not business as usual, certainly,” he said. “But it’s not unusual enough that it should make everyone panic. It’s just different.”

Kevin Paap

At the moment, there’s some uncertainty on the direction the administration might take with two key issues to Minnesota’s farm community: ethanol and the farm bill.

Ethanol is significant for Minnesota’s corn sector: In 2016, the state produced 1.2 billion gallons of ethanol, the fourth-largest total of any state. Ensuring that ethanol continues to be blended into the U.S. fuel supply at a high rate, through the RFS, remains a high priority for Minnesota’s elected officials in D.C.

Though Trump voiced support for ethanol in Iowa, through his Cabinet appointments, he’s sent mixed signals to the ag community.

The Trump campaign once said that he’d likely pick a farmer to run the EPA, the agency that determines the renewable fuel standard. Instead, he picked Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who in the past has been a vocal critic of ethanol, once calling the RFS “unworkable.”

The president has surrounded himself with advisers sympathetic to the oil and gas industry, which is the leading opponent of a strong RFS. His secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, is the former CEO of ExxonMobil; and a key counselor to the president on the economy, billionaire investor Carl Icahn, has significant holdings in oil and gas, and believes that U.S. ethanol policy is unfair.

That Trump doesn’t have a Cabinet counterweight from the ag world concerns some. But for now, Minnesotans are giving him the benefit of the doubt on ethanol, at least.

Pruitt, Paap argued, was a critic of ethanol as an official from a state with a major oil and gas sector, and feels confident that in his new role as a federal official, he will take a different approach.

Farm bill looms

There is also little to indicate how exactly Trump will approach the farm bill, which Congress is aiming to approve by fall of 2018, when the 2014 bill — which laid out $956 billion in spending — expires.

In addition to establishing the safety net for farmers through crop insurance programs and price supports, the farm bill has a broad policy reach that includes funding for nutrition and food stamp programs, a union that makes the legislation a priority for rural and urban districts alike. Drafting the farm bill is a lengthy process that requires bicameral, bipartisan negotiation, many hearings, and field input from communities around the country.

Minnesota ag leaders of all stripes are hoping for a bill that strengthens their safety net in an era of low commodity prices that have led to hard times in farm country.

There are still bad memories among ag advocates from the 1980s and 1990s, when conservative spending hawks sought to radically restructure commodity programs. With Republicans in full control of the executive and legislative branches, there is a worry such restructuring could happen again.

Perdue, the nominee to head the Department of Agriculture, has a farming background, which is taken as a good sign he won’t push hard for big changes to the farm bill. And much of the hard work over the bill happens in Congress, not the White House.

But there’s concern that Trump is reportedly taking policy advice from the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that crusades against government supports for the ag industry.

Lawrence Sukalski

To Lawrence Sukalski, director of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, farmers can’t take anything for granted. In Martin County in southern Minnesota, where he is from, Sukalski says up to three-quarters of property taxes come from the ag industry.

“We need to tell that story,” he said. “We have to ask for enough that we can keep these communities healthy and driving. … Ag is paying a lot of bills in rural America.”

Trade policy: clear, and not

In one area very relevant to agriculture — and to many U.S. industries — Trump has been crystal clear for months: trade.

Trump has promised to take the U.S. in a protectionist direction, railing against “bad deals” with other countries that he says have hollowed out the country’s manufacturing sector. He began to make good on those promises early, with his executive order on Monday that formally withdraws the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 11-nation trade pact that his predecessor, Obama, pushed for.

To most in the ag community in Minnesota, this was a significant, if not unexpected, blow. From pork to corn and soybeans, many Minnesota farmers saw big possibilities in TPP, which reduced trade and tax barriers for their goods in the growing Asia-Pacific region.

Pork, for example, is Minnesota’s No. 3 agricultural export, at $800 million in 2016, and Japan, a TPP signatory, is the top destination for Minnesota pork.

Sukalski lamented the breakdown of the agreement, which took seven years to negotiate. “We’ve worked years on these relationships and nurtured them in Asian countries and it’s really important to have those relationships,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world, at least I hope not.”

Paap said that if Trump has killed TPP, he’s going to need to make up for it by helping farmers provide a market for their products. “Anybody that’s been as successful as President Trump has doesn’t do that in business by ignoring 95 percent of your market share,” he said.

A major question mark, too, is what Trump will do with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a pact with huge significance for U.S. agriculture. He has railed against it, but it’s not clear exactly what he plans to do.

Wertish, the Farmers Union president, is no fan of TPP, saying it advantaged big agribusiness at the expense of smaller farmers. But he’s apprehensive the president might scrap NAFTA. “That would really shake things up to withdraw from that,” he said.

Trump’s strident language on immigration, which has suggested cracking down not just on illegal immigration but curtailing legal immigration, also raises questions in the agriculture industry.

“We have some concern with trade but also with ag labor needs,” Paap said. “We need a legal, stable, experienced labor force, and as we look at immigration and things like that, our cows and our crops don’t wait; they’re perishable items.”

On another important topic to U.S. business, Trump has been very clear: He’ll ease federal environmental regulations. Many in the agriculture business in Minnesota are cheered that he plans to tackle the Waters of the United States rule, an Obama-era EPA provision that subjects certain bodies of water to regulation under the Clean Water Act.

That’s a key issue, according to Brian Buhr, dean of the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota, and a sign in his view that Trump is taking a direction that will be friendly to big agribusiness companies.

All in the same boat

A few days into the new administration, agriculture leaders find themselves in the shoes of many Americans: somewhat in the dark and hoping for the best.

That hope isn’t necessarily misplaced. Agriculture has, historically, been very successful in pushing its policy agenda in the Capitol, and has allies among Trump supporters and opponents alike.

This, combined with the fact that so much of the industry’s reality is driven by global market forces, makes leaders confident that they can weather whatever is coming their way.

“In ag, we’ve been able to work together in a bipartisan manner,” Wertish said. “We’re all in the same boat. Maybe we, with a new administration coming in, maybe we can get something done.”

Sukalski suggested some change could be a good thing. “I think every once in a while you have four to eight years of one thing,” he said, “and maybe you need four to eight years of another thing for a while.”

“Rural America elected him,” Wertish said of Trump. “Our voice needs to be heard, and we intend to be at the table working.”

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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 01/26/2017 - 08:55 am.

    Farmers are one strange special interest. They want no exposure to market forces and insane subsidization in the form of ethanol money. They are, apparently, rural people who live next to rivers and are highly affected by the climate, but as universally opposed to environmental regulation as oil companies. And they’ve aligned with the party that will thoughtlessly inflict deregulation on everyone else. What a mess.

  2. Submitted by Bryce Elson on 01/26/2017 - 11:32 am.

    Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.

    The ending of the TPP as the author notes is not being welcomed by all agri lobbies from meat, processing or any of the specific crop groups, and rightfully so. This opens up the key growing markets for USA goods to the farmers of Australia, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, France, Argentina and Brazil. Secondly a hot trade war with China and Mexico will almost certainly result in repercussions for USA agri exports. These two things alone likely will subtract serious value from USA corn, soybean and wheat prices.

    But wait, there’s more… The administration is already revamping the EPA and moving to undo much of the climate change oriented policies, one of these key policies is the support of renewable fuels. Trump gave lip service to supporting ethanol, but frankly the majority of his people are fossil fuel guys, and Mr Perdue is a Georgian, the position of Ag Secretary almost always goes to a Midwesterner. He may have more interest in cotton and peanuts, and his family is a major poultry world power, poultry processors like lower feed input costs.

    Deregulation won’t do enough to lower farming costs especially when their main costs(equipment, seed, fertilizer and herbicides) are likely to be in an inflationary situation and an increasing interest rate environment due to increasing federal deficits due to huge tax cuts and defense and infrastructure increases.

    It also remains to be seen what will replace Obamacare , as most farmers are part of the non employer based health insurance world.

    I expect rural bankers to be reading loan applications, revenue forecasts, and farm asset spreadsheets very carefully this year. I also expect more farm auctions.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/26/2017 - 12:08 pm.

      Who Cares?

      Trump will blame any and all failures on three groups: the least, the last and the lost.

      Demagogues always scapegoat The Other.

    • Submitted by Rusty Hesson on 01/26/2017 - 06:46 pm.

      Well I can think of one reason why someone can’t see ,we have way to many people farming way to much land

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/26/2017 - 11:54 am.

    Nothing

    Trump’s protectionist policies are going to decimate farm country. Not that a business failure like Trump would understand.

  4. Submitted by C.S. Senne on 01/26/2017 - 11:59 am.

    No worries…

    Midwest farmers should trust Trump’s choice for Ag Secretary, even though he was the last to be selected. Good, old, Southern guy, Sonny Perdue, when Georgia governor, solved a drought concern by assembling prayer circles to pray for rain. Trump cares.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/26/2017 - 12:04 pm.

    Another silly question

    Trump will do for the farmers all that he will do for the miners up North- nothing. Unless he’s got stock of some kind it’s not going to be on his radar.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/26/2017 - 12:17 pm.

    As before:

    Recessions tend to be farm led and farm fed: all those rural Trump signs! Can’t say you folks weren’t adequately and frequently warned about this shyster. Suck it up you got what you asked for.

  7. Submitted by Curt Carlson on 01/26/2017 - 03:08 pm.

    How long?

    The question In have to keep asking is how long it will take Trump supporters to admit they’ve been conned.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/30/2017 - 10:14 am.

      Conned?

      Can it rightfully be a con if they rightfully should have known better? Personally, I know and love several people who will be hurt by the policies (if you can call them that) of Trump. But, if there’s anything to be learned, it’s that you reap what you sow. Hopefully, the coup won’t have been completely successful by the time the next election happens, so that we still can take back our country. After all, a despot does not follow the rules, including the will of the people. Constitution or not.

  8. Submitted by Daryl Gerke on 01/26/2017 - 05:14 pm.

    Not optimistic…

    If you are in big ag corporate farming, you might do OK. If you are a small family farmer, my guess is you have been had. After all, Trump is all about the money – BIG money.

    I agree with Mr. Elson. Pulling out of the TPP locks the US out of major farm export markets. The big oil interests are opposed to ethanol. In spite of all the rhetoric, Obama care benefited many small businesses, including farmers (I’ve seen it.)

    Not a farmer myself, but I am a small businessman. Grew up in Nebraska and have many friends/relatives with family farms. Have some land there, so even though I’m no longer rural I share those concerns.

    Yes, rural America helped elect him, but I am not optimistic for the small family farmers – or any small business owners – under Trump.

  9. Submitted by Douglas Owens-Pike on 01/26/2017 - 05:44 pm.

    farm bill 2018

    The next farm bill should include provisions that recognize the importance of building soil health through improving organic matter retained. If you increase OM concentration by just 1% your land will store another 30,000 gallons of water. That can make all the difference in our new erratic weather as a result of climate disruption. Is is sad when our leaders fear or hide from science that clearly predicts the impact resulting from their policy decisions. If you have a hole in your roof and you ignore it, pretty soon your asset turns into a liability. Pumping carbon into our atmosphere is fouling our nest, like chopping a hole in the roof of your home.

  10. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/26/2017 - 05:50 pm.

    The other issue is illegal workers on labor-dependent agricultural operations. The government says about 50% are illegally working, trade groups and growers say about 70%.

    Time for farmers to speak up for your valued and necessary workers !!

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/30/2017 - 10:16 am.

      Ha!

      I actually support the loss of illegal workers to farmers. I’ve seen how many of them treat their workers. Like indentured servants, at best. And it’s the workers that bear the brunt of any enforcement, not the employers, who frequently lie about whether they “knew” their employees were legal.

  11. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 01/26/2017 - 10:30 pm.

    Tariffs

    Trump is calling on a 20% tariff on all Mexican imports to pay for the wall, and threatened similar actions against other countries. If this enormously stupid idea is allowed happen, Mexico and others will retaliate with tariffs of their own.

    By making our agricultural exports more expensive, our state will sell a lot less, depressing the more fragile farm communities of Greater Minnesota. With tariffs, there is no upside for rural Minnesota – less money coming in and many products people need that are no longer manufactured in the US will cost much more.

    Add in nothing being done to reduce the cost of healthcare and higher education combined with Republican plans to raise the retirement age while privatizing Medicare and Social Security (not to mention the VA and Medicaid block grants that pay for nursing home care), this is a recipe for disaster for rural Minnesotans wanting steady employment, good healthcare, the ability to send their kids to college and retire before years of hard physical labor leaves them to enjoy their children and grandchildren while remaining active.

    Minnesota’s Republican elected officials need to decide now whether they will go along with all of Trump’s ideas to gain more political power, or do the right thing for the people who elected them. Democrats already oppose tariffs. They need to get some Republican help to stop Trump’s insanity before it does great harm to the American people who do the real work of the country..

    And a couple other thoughts. Want to take a nice trip to Mexico? If this goes through, it will cost more and be less safe, as when the Mexican economy tanks, crime and corrupt policing wiill increase. And locally, the local airline, Sun Country, is put in jeopardy by any serious reduction in travel to Mexico. Outcome – Delta has even more of a lock of our market and our already high airline tickets go up. This is your basic Pandora’s Box situation. The petulant child has been told not to open the box, but he doesn’t like hearing no for an answer.

  12. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/27/2017 - 06:28 am.

    Protectionism

    The conventional wisdom from ancient times is that protectionism hurts farmers who seek to sell their product in the global markets. As we erect trade barriers in the United States, countries hurt by that will attempt at least to retaliate by trying to buy agricultural products elsewhere. Not necessarily easily done, but it will hurt somewhat.

  13. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/27/2017 - 09:05 am.

    AMERICA

    Trump will make America great again.

    He will not segment America into an infinite variety of special interest groups. This segmentation has caused the democrats to stifle and became a regional party with no new ideas and in constant fear of offending someone somewhere – except conservatives.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/27/2017 - 10:18 am.

      An infinite variety of special interest groups

      Do you mean like farmers, gun owners, evangelicals, or blue-collar white males?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/27/2017 - 10:53 am.

      Nope

      He’s already hurting America. That’s what you get by electing an economically illiterate business failure as president.

    • Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 01/27/2017 - 11:23 am.

      Projection

      The projection on display here in Mr. Gotzman’s comment seems an extension of what’s already been heard from Trump and his partisans. The Crooked Hillary meme, coming from a career shyster, for example. The Republican Benghazi charade, for another. There is almost no defect in Republican/Trump thought, action or characteristic which can’t be repurposed as a club to use on Democrats or other Trump opponent.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/28/2017 - 08:30 am.

      Please!

      Define great?
      Some of us must have it all wrong, when great doesn’t mean the worlds richest economy, most powerful military and probably freest people. Does Great mean all those things go away?

  14. Submitted by Curt Carlson on 01/27/2017 - 01:44 pm.

    Playing to his crowd

    So far, all of Trump’s statements and actions have been designed (I use that term loosely) to appeal to his poorly-educated, fact-resistant base. When the results of his actions start to hit home, it’ll be interesting to see how many voters who supported him can continue to rationalize the negative practical impacts with his rhetoric. The next couple of years might be rocky, but I suspect the next elections might not be to Trump’s advantage.

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