By Mason Krohn
To say that President Donald Trump has been ungrateful for the support of American farmers would be an understatement. At the American Farm Bureau Annual Convention, he remarked, “Oh, are you happy you voted for me. You are so lucky that I gave you that privilege.” But despite our New York native President’s ingenuine response to agricultural support, his campaign inspired farmers and captured 55 percent of their support (compared to Clinton’s 18 percent) in the 2016 election. Yet, in the midst of an escalating trade war initiated by the United States, Trump’s policy and impassioned rhetoric has touched upon the anxieties of American farmers. Firing back at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump tweeted that “Canada has treated our Agricultural business and Farmers very poorly for a very long period of time.” However, after enacting tariffs on dozens of EU nations, Mexico, Canada, and China, Trump has simultaneously set profits on farm goods spiraling. The question, then, arises: were farmers lucky to have voted Donald Trump into office?
Despite comprising just 1.5 percent of the American workforce, farmers wield tremendous voting power. For Republicans and Democrats alike, this demographic finds political prestige in its rural presence. Numerically, rural Americans have greater representation than the average citizen. In fact, states containing just 17 percent of the American population can elect a Senate majority, and at the state level, bills preferred by urban delegations are far more likely to be rejected. The farm vote is even more pertinent in terms of the 2018 midterm elections, where farmers targeted by Mexican tariffs populate congressional districts that could lose their Republican seats. In addition to their powerful voting force, farmers have a strong lobbying arm tied to the Farm Bureau, which spent over $3 million for lobbying efforts last year. Evidently, Donald Trump and the Republican party owe much of their dominance in the federal government to agricultural votes. On that same token, pursuing farmers’ votes ought to be a chief goal for any successful campaign in upcoming elections.
Given President Trump’s recent prerogatives, however, the Executive Branch is not meeting the needs of its farming constituents. The predominant issue is trade. Principally, President Trump’s instigation of a trade war with China (and later a plethora of US allies) was poorly timed. Prior to Trump’s announcement of the first set of steel tariffs in March, federal data projected that, this year, farm incomes would hit their lowest point since 2006. Meanwhile, borrowing costs for agriculturalists are rising and foreign rivals like Russia and Brazil are beginning to damage America’s dominance in the global grain trade. Hence, placing metal tariffs on Mexico and Canada (who import $39bn in US agricultural goods), China ($20bn), and the EU ($12bn)--all of which have promised retaliatory tariffs aimed at American farmers--puts a damper on an already sluggish agricultural sector. For some producers in the pork industry, trade barriers are already taking a hit; but, even more worrisome, greater than 14 percent of $140 billion in annual U.S. farm exports have been or will likely be hit by retaliatory tariffs in trade disputes with major international buyers China and Mexico. Even if President Trump’s The Art of the Deal skills shine through and retaliatory tariffs are dissuaded while providing the US with a fairer stance in global trade, farmers will still miss out. That’s because uncertainty about US trade restrictions has led international buyers to turn towards other suppliers. In the first week of April, Chinese buyers ordered about 255,000 metric tons of U.S. soybeans, but sales for the rest of the month totaled just 11,000 metric tons. Further, 76,000 metric tons’ worth of orders were canceled over that same time period. For countries like Brazil, this doubt provides a viable opportunity for their farmers to expand their hold in international markets, and supplant American suppliers to China. Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) is pushing for legislation to restrain Trump’s powers to restrict trade, but unless his actions create immediate results, it will be too late to fix the devastating consequences of tariffs compounded with agricultural decline.
Smiling before Twitter this week, Enrique Pena Nieto celebrated the announcement of North America’s joint hosting of World Cup 2026, proclaiming, “we’re deeply unified”. Perhaps Enrique Pena Nieto is either really good at facades or truly loves soccer, because in the wake of Trump’s abusive tariffs on Mexico, NAFTA countries are far from unified. Trump’s war of words with Mexico has toxified US-Mexico relations since his campaign, but alongside his action on trade, Trump is now pushing his immigration agenda, producing inopportune outcomes for American agriculture. Trump’s rally against immigrants he sees as “Drug dealers, criminals, rapists” from “shithole countries” first came into fruition through his termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA’s downfall put 800,000 immigrants’ legal status in the US at risk. From there, Trump called for 4,000 members of the National Guard to join the border patrol in April. Recently, Trump’s border policy took an even more inhumane turn when his administration began separating children from their parents at the border. The Deputy Chief of the Operations Program for Customs and Border Protection reported to Congress that 658 children were split from their parents in just two weeks of May. Beyond the Mexican-American border, Trump disrupted immigration precedent by ending Temporary Protected Status for 57,000 Hondurans and 2,500 Nicaraguans who have resided in the US for decades. Trump’s immense changes to immigration policy are tearing apart families, dangerously sending immigrants back to their home countries, and, surprisingly, damaging American farmers. While the farming population is traditionally conservative, Trump’s strict immigration policies profoundly disservice their sector. American agricultural necessitates the flow of foreign workers into the country since more than half of farm laborers are undocumented. Critics of open borders would argue that native-born American citizens can fulfill this shortage, but precedent says otherwise: A 2013 study of North Carolina’s agricultural labor market by economist Michael Clemens concluded that even in recessions, Americans are unwilling to uptake manual farm occupations. From 2007 to 2010, unemployment rose by 6.2% in the state, but there was no correlation between the rising unemployment rate and referrals to farm work nor the starting of farm jobs by native North Carolinians. In 2011, just seven native workers completed the growing season (occupying 0.1% of all open farm jobs). Moreover, in 2017, the losses from unharvested crops because of labor shortages numbered in the billions. Trump’s immigration policy isn’t only dehumanizing--it’s taking a toll on American farmers, the very people who took to the voting booths for him.
Luckily, Congress is making an effort to minimize the impacts of Trump’s chaotic policies. As aforementioned, Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) hopes that his legislation to require congressional approval when the president enacts tariffs under the veil of national security will limit agricultural hardship. Simultaneously, the Legislative Branch is looking to pass a new farm bill. Every five years, Congress is tasked with renewing the omnibus bill which encompasses agricultural subsidies and food assistance programs. Its passage is quintessential for American farms and decisions made during its legislative process tremendously impact our economy. With the current farm bill expiring in September 2018, Congress is running out of time to introduce and pass new legislation. In May, the House Farm Bill was rejected primarily because conservatives intertwined its fate with looming immigration decisions. The final vote was 198-213, with every Democrat in opposition and thirty Republicans belonging to the Freedom Caucus. On June 8th, a Senate committee released a second version of the bill entitled the the "Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018." The measure reaches across the aisle by leaving the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program unaltered, which is an inviting move for Democrats, many of whom denied the House bill because of its added work requirements for food stamps. On June 21st, the House passed its farm bill without a single Democrat vote. If the House Bill succeeds in the Senate, 400,000 households would lose SNAP benefits and thousands of students would lose access to free and reduced lunch. Regretfully, the House Bill also undercuts USDA conservation programs. Where the House Bill lacks, the bipartisan Senate Farm Bill makes strides for farmers. The Senate legislation provides high-speed internet for rural communities, supports new farmers entering the field, renews and expands conservation efforts, and, of utmost importance to many Democrats (which is crucial for passage in the Senate), it preserves SNAP work requirements. Although neither bill addresses major inequalities in agricultural subsidy distribution, the passage of the Senate Farm Bill would stabilize the agricultural industry in spite of Trump’s evolving trade policies. If senators and representatives alike hope to hold onto their positions in Congress during this upcoming midterm election, they have to voice the needs of their farming constituents and craft policy that heals the wounds the Trump administration inflicted.
The first set of Trump’s tariffs takes effect on July 6th. Until then, members of the Trump administration can pressure him to change his directive and Congress can scramble to reduce his authority. But, as farmers watch a presidential trade war devolve into economic downfall and strict immigration policies weaken their labor force, they will decide if they truly were privileged to vote for President Trump and side with the GOP. And, maybe, they will be privileged enough to vote him out of office.