economics

Farmers Playing Long Game With Trump, Even as Woes Build Up

Farmers Playing Long Game With Trump, Even as Woes Build Up

  • President to speak to farm group as trade war, shutdown linger
  • Some farmers now undecided on 2020, but not yet opposed

Soybeans are harvested in this aerial photograph taken above Tiskilwa, Illinois.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Farmers are used to playing the long game. Bad weather comes and goes, prices rise and fall, but they are a patient lot. So it is with their support for Donald Trump.

That’s the signal from farmers these days, following a partial government shutdown that’s keeping some growers from filing for payments designed to help them overcome crop tariffs resulting from Trump’s trade war with China. On Monday, when Trump speaks before the American Farm Bureau, he’ll likely face an audience willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for now. Support may be softening; it’s not yet ending.

"It’s difficult to say that you support something that financially is a big issue” personally, said Steve Steirwalt, a fourth-generation grain grower who works 1,700 acres in Champaign County, Illinois. Still, Steirwalt added, he likes a lot of the president’s policies.

Aron Carlson, who grows corn and soy on 3,600 acres in northern Illinois, was just in the process of purchasing another 200 acres of land with the help of a Farm Service Agency program that reduces loan interest. The paperwork was snaking its way through the agency, he said, when the shutdown halted the review process.

Now, Carlson’s worried he’ll have to refile everything if the shutdown goes on longer.


‘Serious Problems’

“Obviously I would like to see the shutdown end, but I see where he’s coming from,” Carlson said of Trump. “There are some serious problems going on with that border."

Other issues are involved with the shutdown as well.

For instance, some producers of ethanol, a biofuel made from corn, are growing concerned the shutdown could make it impossible for the Environmental Protection Agency to meet deadlines for allowing summertime sales of gasoline blended with as much as 15 percent ethanol, a change Trump promised last year. The agency aimed to propose unleashing so-called E15 gasoline in February, followed by final action in May, just four weeks before those summertime restrictions become binding.

The EPA offered some assurance this week, with spokesman Michael Abboud insisting “the ongoing partial shutdown will not impede EPA’s ability to keep to our deadline” and that it still plans to complete the regulatory shift “before this summer’s driving season” as it’s “a priority for both President Trump and Acting Administrator Wheeler.”

Biggest Issue

The biggest issue for farmers, though, is the trade war with China, Carlson and other growers agreed. “We send them a lot of soybeans," he said. "They’re basically buying every other bushel in the world and we’re the last invited to the table, and I don’t like to be last. I want to be front and center, as far as that stuff goes.”

He voted for Trump and still considers himself a supporter. “I understand his tactics, but I kind of question whether it’s going to work in the end.” Meanwhile, based on his talks with other farmers, he finds support for Trump is “softening a little bit,” he said, mainly as a result of the tariffs.

“The country doesn’t quite run like a business, as much as I think he’d like it to,” Carlson said of Trump. “I hope he can get the whole trade thing with China figured out. I think we need to quit picking some fights.”

A seasonal survey measuring whether farmers feel they are doing better than a year earlier offers a snapshot of the attitudes in the field. Released by DTN/Progressive Farmer on Jan. 9, it found that a tough harvest combined with the trade woes dropped farmers’ confidence by a full 40 points from a year earlier, said Greg Horstmeier, DTN’s editor in chief.

Wavering Support

Roger Cerven may exemplify a potential shift in support. Cerven farms corn and soybeans on 2,000 acres in Iowa and has a cow-calf herd. While he hasn’t experienced problems on his farm due to the shutdown, he is concerned about negotiations with China.

Cerven said he agrees with the president’s efforts on issues like immigration and regulation, and supported Trump’s campaign in 2016. But he says he’s now an undecided voter as the 2020 election draws closer and closer.

Issues surrounding the trade war “are going to be drawn out for several years to come,” he said in a telephone interview Friday, even if they’re brought to a relatively quick conclusion by talks now ongoing.

“That’s what really bothers me," he said. “Those exports won’t come back.”