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

Source: By Mario Parker, Bloomberg • Posted: Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Donald Trump’s policies might be causing hiccups in the agriculture world, but the man himself is still enjoying the affections of his farming base.

Speaking before the American Farm Bureau in New Orleans Monday, Trump drew applause and cheers as he lobbied for a border wall, while telling the audience that he’ll make it “easier” for migrants to work on farms. He also touted his administration’s approval of year-round sales of gasoline with higher ethanol content and said he’s making deals and regulatory changes that will benefit agriculture.

The speech comes at a time when farmers are feeling the weight of almost a year of escalating trade tensions with China, which have reduced demand for American crop exports and weighed on commodity prices. Meanwhile, the partial government shutdown, the longest ever in U.S. history, has disrupted some aid payments that were meant to help ease the trade war’s blow. Shuttered federal agencies are also choking off key crop reports that farmers rely on to make planting decisions.

Before the speech, Trump tweeted he was “getting ready to address the Farm Convention today in Nashville, Tennessee. Love our farmers, love Tennessee.” The tweet was later deleted. The conference was being held in New Orleans.

Geographical blunders aside, Trump was greeted by a friendly audience. The president brought Jim Chilton, a rancher whose Arizona land runs along the border, to the stage. Chilton’s declaration that “we need a wall,” drew applause from the crowd.

Farmers are used to playing the long game. Bad weather comes and goes, prices rise and fall, but they remain a patient lot. So it seems to be with their assessment of Trump. Even as woes for the farm economy mount, support may be softening; it’s not yet ending.

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 make his case anew, refiling all of his paperwork if the shutdown goes on longer. “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 EPA 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 agency offered some assurance last week, with spokesman Michael Abboud insisting “the ongoing partial shutdown will not impede EPA’s ability to keep to our deadline.” In his speech Monday, Trump said the policy change makes a “big, big difference for the farmers,”

The biggest issue for farmers, though, is the trade war with China, Carlson and other growers agreed. The Asian country is a powerhouse player in the agriculture world as it buys huge amounts of soybeans and other crops.

Carlson 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.”