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.
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.”
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.
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.”