Wisconsin farmers gave Donald Trump their vote, and many still support him, but there’s growing angst about some Trump administration decisions and unresolved issues such as immigration reform and foreign trade deals.
As the president approaches his first year in office, some worry that time is slipping away while the farm economy falters. That’s even as Trump, on Monday, gave a speech to a largely receptive audience at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual conference in Nashville.
“We’re streamlining regulations that have blocked cutting-edge biotechnology, setting free our farmers to innovate, thrive and to grow. … To level the playing field for our great American exporters – our farmers and ranchers, as well as our manufacturers – we are reviewing all of our trade agreements to make sure they are fair and reciprocal. Reciprocal, so important,” Trump said in his speech to the nation’s largest farm group.
Yet farmers are worried that Trump has threatened to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement if the U.S. can’t reach a winning deal with Canada and Mexico, our two largest trading partners.
Loss of NAFTA would hit grain and livestock markets at a time when farmers are already hurting. U.S. farm income fell 50% from 2013 to 2016, and when the numbers are finalized, farm income for 2017 is expected to be only about 3% higher, primarily on livestock profits.
“Commodity prices are going to be down for just about everything again this year. … As other countries are producing more of their own food, there’s less need for them to buy from the U.S,” said Darin Von Ruden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union.
“You watch your neighbors go out of business and hope that you can make it through the next round,” Von Ruden said.
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American farmers want Canada to ease restrictions on U.S. dairy products, and they also fear losing easy access to the Mexican market.
One of every nine tanker loads of milk from Wisconsin ends up in dairy products out of the country, with much of it going to Mexico. Millions of bushels of Wisconsin corn are exported, putting any type of trade dispute in perspective.
“By and large, we are starting to see a lot of frustration from farmers who are tied into the economy at that level,” said Chris Holman, a farmer from Stevens Point.
“We have a major problem of overproduction in this country, and we use exports as the relief valve to maintain market price,” said Michael Slattery, a Manitowoc County farmer who spent nearly 20 years working in domestic and international finance, including 12 years for Japan’s largest bank.
Is agriculture a priority for Trump?
In April, Trump himself weighed in on a dairy trade dispute with Canada, strongly criticizing Canadian government policies, yet some experts say that aside from trade agreements and immigration, the nation’s farms haven’t been on his priority list.
“I don’t think the Trump administration has really done anything related to agriculture at all,” said Steven Deller, a rural development economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Right now, all of the discussion on immigration and trade is causing a lot of angst because we don’t know what is going to happen” Deller said.
“Businesses hate uncertainty. What drives them nuts is when rules are haphazardly enforced or keep changing,” he added.
Deller said he’s hopeful that U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, rather than Trump, will take charge of the administration’s decisions regarding farm policies.
The son of a Georgia farmer, Perdue has owned several agricultural businesses but is not associated with the food company Perdue or the poultry producer Perdue Farms.
When Perdue was governor of Georgia, he took a holistic view of rural development and understood the farm economy, according to Deller.
“My hope is that Trump lets Perdue do what needs to be done,” he said.
Some farm groups have applauded the president for recent actions that included rescinding the Waters of the United States rule defining which rivers, streams, lakes and marshes fall under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.
And they’ve been grateful that Trump has acknowledged the need for farms to have an immigrant labor workforce, especially as farming operations have gotten bigger and hired help has been hard to find.
“To us, that is really huge. … It’s very difficult to bring someone in, right off the street, to take care of animals,” said Lori Fischer, CEO of the American Dairy Coalition, based in Green Bay.
Yet some farm groups have been critical of recent Trump administration decisions, including one that said livestock labeled “USDA Organic” need not be treated any more humanely than other farm animals.
The decision reversed years of federal policy, but Trump’s policymakers argued that the USDA Organic label doesn’t allow “broadly prescriptive, stand-alone animal welfare regulations.”
The change gives large organic poultry operations an unfair advantage over smaller poultry farms, as they no longer have to give their birds access to the outdoors, said Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based group that studies food policy issues and the organic food industry.
“The bottom line was the power of the agribusiness corporate lobby had more clout than the entire organic community,” Kastel said.