Trump’s policies have been devastating to Iowa farmers...
So why do they still overwhelmingly support him?
I’m on a tour led by John Maxwell, the owner/operator of Cinnamon Ridge in Donahue, Iowa, near Davenport. He’s leading a group of 17 German farmers in the U.S. to learn about farming practices here. Most of their questions are “in the weeds” of farming practices – both figuratively and literally – but some are tangentially related to the reason I’m in Iowa: the 2020 election.
“You don’t have any Mexican workers?” one asks, probably aware that many U.S. farms hire immigrants to perform the most laborious tasks and, perhaps, that immigration is a hot political issue.
Maxwell responds that he used to but doesn’t now. “I will tell you Mexicans work hard but they often leave the equipment a mess.”
I want to ask exactly what that means but Maxwell quickly moves to the real reason why they don’t have Mexican workers - or any human workers, really - to milk the cows at Cinnamon Ridge: automation.
“Robots are never late, they work holidays, they work Sundays, and I don’t have to bail them out of jail on Monday morning,” he tells everyone, eliciting wide laughter.
It’s a little surreal, an Iowan farmer talking to a group of Germans about whether he hires immigrants. Today, however, I’m here for another story.
Harmful Farm Policies
John Maxwell and his wife Joan are, in many ways, iconic Iowan farmers. Although they have dairy cows, most of their money comes from cash crops corn and soybeans. Like most farmers in Iowa, they are Donald Trump supporters. Farmers remain a core bloc of support for the president and most are expected to vote for him in the general election this coming November. In fact, according to a poll by Farm Journal, Trump’s approval among farmers has hit a record high.
This is a head scratch for many election watchers. According to some vocal critics and media, White House policies in recent years have not always favored farmers and have, in fact, cost the industry billions of dollars in lost crop revenue. Those include the dissolution of NAFTA, the trade war with China, and the weakening of biofuels mixing requirements.
Two facts important to this story: (1) soy and corn are converted into ethanol to make biodiesel; (2) China and Mexico are the largest export markets for American agricultural products.
Those two facts are important because they are areas where Trump Administration policy has hit agriculture. A trade war with China resulted in China slapping retaliatory tariffs on agricultural goods from the U.S. including soybeans and corn; renegotiating NAFTA led to producer and market insecurity about trade with their second biggest market; and a loosening of requirements by government for refiners to use more biofuels – including ethanol and biodiesel – meant less demand for corn and soybean production.
Combined with poor recent weather conditions, many farmers have had it tough since Trump took office. According to the American Farm Bureau, farm bankruptcies jumped 20 percent last year. Tragically, suicides among farmers are up.
While Maxwell admits the agricultural industry has lost significant revenue in the last few years, he argues that everything the White House has been doing reflects a long-term strategy. In other words, Donald Trump is fighting for them.
“We're okay with it because we can see beyond our nose,” he told me. “We realize that we not only will make that back, we will make that back probably tenfold once we get past our nose.”
Maxwell says that, for decades, China was stealing intellectual property that American companies had developed to increase agricultural output, cheating American exporters in the trade game. China used the technology to increase their own yield, enabling them to produce more of their own, reducing imports from the U.S. Additionally, while farmers were nervous about the dissolution of NAFTA, they’re confident that the new USMCA deal – just signed last week – will be even better for them.
As Maxwell sees it, it was a tough fight and they paid a price for it but, in the end, it was worth it. Farmers expect the new trade agreements with China and Mexico will offer terms that are more favorable to them. Additionally, it forced distributors to find new markets in Asia and South America that are expanding and offering hope for future sales.
Many producers are displeased with the EPA’s handling of the biofuel waivers for oil refineries. Farmers and biofuels producers claim that the agency’s expansive use of the exemptions—known as Small Refinery Exemptions, or SREs – have had deleterious effects on their income. They call it “demand destruction,” a rhetoric that has been freely tossed around the Midwest and Washington for the past few years, mostly by the ethanol industry.
The ethanol industry sued EPA over what it claimed was the agency’s illegal use of the SREs, and the court sided with the biofuels industry. That suit was brought in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals by the Renewable Fuels Association. The court ruling means some of the exemptions may have to be invalidated, which pleases the biofuels industry. The devil is in the details, however. How exactly EPA handles the undoing of the exemptions may still be less than clear. Exactly how will they require the refineries to make up the lost gallons that were until recently, exempted?
However it goes, Maxwell is forgiving, saying the President has just been in a tough spot.
“It's hard to serve all of the folks that got you elected because, in some cases, it's one versus another,” he says. “And obviously coal and oil and those industries helped Trump get elected. But on the same token, many a farmer that grows corn that produces ethanol also helped. So, it gets complicated.”
Then there are the bailouts. Last year, $16 billion in federal money went to farmers affected by the trade war. While that might not have solved each and every farm’s financial woes (as shown by the rate of bankruptcies and suicides), it has kept the hemorrhaging in check and likely staved off the potential waning of support for Trump.
Another insulating factor: farmers are simply used to market volatility. Agricultural prices dropped by 50 percent during the last three years of the Obama presidency, mostly the result of droughts and other weather factors. Flooding last year is estimated to have cost farmers $2 billion in Iowa alone.
With booms and busts the norm and price volatility common, it’s difficult for farmers to know exactly why they are up one day and down the next.
“The greatest losses come from weather and more specifically dry hot weather,” Maxwell explains. “That is the greatest challenge of them all because there isn't a thing you can do about it. Then there’s hail. You can lose a whole crop in a matter of seconds. Then there’s the outside forces that change the prices of a commodity that you have nothing, nothing you can do about.”
Succinctly, farming is risky business no matter who holds the office of president and Donald Trump, at least, makes an effort.
I talked to Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig about the same issues and our conversation reinforced Maxwell’s belief that the president has been working for farmers and not against them. Secretary Naig also expressed more confidence that, policy-wise at least, things are going in the right direction for Iowa farmers and that’s good for the president.
“We're several months out from a, from a general election so there'll be a lot of things can happen between now and then,” he told me. But, “the fact that we have really started 2020 with a series of good news events, that's a great start.”
He added that they will have to wait to see if the markets correspondingly respond and whether they will be able to “play offense on trade.”
“Those are the things that farmers will care about along with all the things that anybody wants to talk about, the quality of life and broadband and access to childcare and healthcare and schools,” he explained. “Those are all the types of things that farmers and rural islands are going to look at just like anybody else.”
Where the Democrats Are
For a counterpoint, I also talked to Sally Stutsman, a former Iowa State Representative who, along with her husband Roger, runs a farm growing corn as well as beans, alfalfa, and beef. A Democrat, Stutsman will be caucusing on Monday.
I expected her to say that Democrats are, at least, equally as good for rural Iowa as Trump. However, as a farmer, she understands Trump’s appeal given that Democrats seem to make little to no effort to reach out to voters like Maxwell.
“We’re not high on their priorities,” she explains. “When I was in the legislature, I always used to tell my colleagues, you need to pay attention to rural Iowa. They would say, oh no, we don't need rural votes. You know, we can win in the suburbs, in the urban areas. And I said, I don't think so. And by golly, I was proven right.”
She sees the same thing happening during the 2020 cycle. It’s one sign that Donald Trump will win Iowa – a state Obama won twice – and may very well win reelection.
Stutsman does remember that Hillary Clinton put together an advisory committee composed of farmers but, in the end, “it didn’t go that well.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the campaign aisle, Donald Trump was assembling a roster of notable lawmakers, lobbyists, and donors from farm states leading Politico to run an article headlined “Trump assembles A-team on ag policy.”
The Stutsmans can’t really say how much recent events have affected their farming business (and certainly not until they do their taxes) but other issues - such as climate change - influence their decisions as much as their immediate bottom line.
On Monday, Stutsman says she’s going moderate, looking at Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar.
“You know, somebody that could work across the aisle and bring people together,” she explains. “Last time was radical change. I think we're seeing the results where you just kinda go in and turn everything upside down. I think we just need to get back on a more even keel, and not for so much chaos in the country.”