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Trump’s policies are hitting family farmers hard

By Franco Ordonez/McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS) • Nov 1, 2018 at 4:00 PM

She’s a Democrat who hates President Donald Trump’s tariffs. He’s a Republican who hates the tariffs, too, but believes Trump needs more time in office.

Pat Peterson and Shannon Dowell are tied together by the 550 acres of the land they farm together in Central Missouri and their financial co-dependency on Trump’s ability to win an ugly trade war with China.

Many of those feeling the greatest pain from tariffs the United States and China have put on $50 billion worth of goods are rural Trump voters who helped him win Missouri by nearly 20 points in 2016.

Family farmers have lost billions of dollars in profits as a whole. They hate the tariffs, but supporters like Dowell don’t appear to be jumping ship. At least not yet.

“We are literally surrounded by Republican farmers and we just shake our heads trying to understand why they’re still supporting this,” Peterson said. “Why are they not saying this is wrong? Why are they’re still supporting Trump? And they do.”

In farm and factory states such as Missouri, where the fog of soybean dust fills the air as harvest season kicks into high gear, tariffs are the issue that has tested the patience of rural Americans as uncertainty rages about future earnings before the midterm elections.

Dowell said Trump deserves a chance to address a problem that everyone knows exists.

The third-generation farmer who lives on the farm his grandfather purchased in the 1960s doesn’t like having less money, but said he sees the long game. It’s time someone stood up to China after years of espionage and price fixing, he said.

“No change ever happens without a little hurt,” Dowell said.

But Peterson, who lives with her husband Charles on their farm, rolls her eyes when she hears her Republican friends talk about the need to be patient. She’s tired of wondering if crop prices will return to where they were before the trade war.

“We’re talking thousands of dollars because of the tariffs,” Peterson said. “And that’s not even thinking about buying new equipment. You just don’t know what to do. It’s very stressful.”

Last year, the United States exported about $20 billion worth of agricultural products to China of which soybeans accounted for more than half that amount.

Trump’s 25 percent tariffs are mainly aimed at curbing imports from China, but Beijing retaliated with levies on an equal amount of U.S. products, including soybeans and pork.

Soybean prices fell by about 20 percent after the tariffs were enacted, and have dropped from a high of $10 a bushel to about $8.50 today.

Trump says he can save American jobs and factories by reworking trade deals. He’s making that case directly to sensitive farmers caught in the crossfire with Beijing during the final campaign stretch largely through corn and soybean country, including two stops in Missouri.

“Don’t forget, we’re the piggybank that everybody wants to steal from,” Trump said at the Future Farmers of America’s annual convention in Indianapolis Saturday. “Everybody. We have all the cards, but nobody has ever chosen to use those cards. Honestly, nobody has ever known that we had the cards. They never got it. But we get it now.”

To ease the effects of the tariffs — and keep the rural vote — Trump announced a $12 billion bailout for farmers this year. Trump will visit Columbia, Mo., Thursday and Cape Girardeau next week where he’ll campaign for Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley in one of the most hotly contested U.S. Senate races. Trump sees the chance to defeat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill as one of the best opportunities to pick up a key Democratic seat.

But the tariffs are the wild card in this year’s election.

Only 28 percent of Missouri registered voters asked in an NBC News/Marist poll said the Trump tariffs and barriers to imports will protect American jobs and help the U.S. economy, according to a recent NBC News/Marist poll. Forty-four percent said they will hurt the U.S. economy and raise the cost of consumer goods.

Mix in other factors such as the absence of a farm bill, unpredictable weather ––Missouri experienced a long drought this year –– and that farming is a high risk industry. Farm income has dropped more than 50 percent in the past five years, according to the American Farm Bureau.

“So farmers are getting squeezed on both sides,” said Brian Kuehl, executive director of Farmers for Free Trade.

John Block, an agriculture secretary during the Reagan administration who supports Trump’s trade policies, said farmers understand the difficult challenges involving China. They also accept that commodity prices are low not just because of the tariffs, but also because the nation’s farmers had such a large harvest this year.

Block said farmers continue to have faith in Trump — especially now after he reworked a trade deal with Mexico and Canada that covered many agriculture products sold from the region.

“Part of this is just the simple idea that, well, Trump got one thing done. He said he would. Now, let’s get the next one done,” Block said. “There is more confidence that we’re going to keep fixing these disputes and agriculture will be back in there with a lot of customers.”

Farmer Rick Oswald said the trade war reminds him of the Soviet grain embargo nearly 40 years ago, which pushed many of his friends out of the business. President Jimmy Carter sought to punish the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan and announced an embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union.

While the U.S. cut its sales to the Soviet Union, countries like Argentina and Brazil seized on the opportunity and sold grain to the Soviets to the detriment of American family farmers.

Oswald estimates his six full bins in Rock Port, Mo., would have been worth $216,000 instead of $180,000 if not for Trump’s trade war.

Why would China back down?

“The leaders in China may be worse than the Republicans,” said Oswald, a past president of the Missouri Farmer’s Union, “They really don’t have anyone to answer to.”

Saline County Commissioner Richard Clemens, a third-generation farmer and chairman of the Saline County Republican Committee, said it’s unfair to compare Trump’s tariffs with the Soviet embargo. The pain was much worse because it happened at a time when interest rates were sky high, he said.

Kile Guthrey, a farmer and Democratic commissioner, agreed. He admits he too found Trump “refreshing” during the 2016 campaign, taking on the establishment Republicans in multiple debates and talking like any one of his neighbors.

But he’s concerned that the tariffs will drive out more young struggling farmers.

“It seems they always use the farmer as the whipping boy,” Guthrey said.

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