Government & Politics

Trump’s policies are hitting family farmers hard. Will they revolt on Election Day?

Rural Missouri shows confidence in President Trump’s tariffs war

Shannon Dowell, a third-generation farmer from Marshall, Missouri, talks about how tariffs have hurt farmers' pocketbooks, but why they still have confidence in President Trump's tariffs policy.
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Shannon Dowell, a third-generation farmer from Marshall, Missouri, talks about how tariffs have hurt farmers' pocketbooks, but why they still have confidence in President Trump's tariffs policy.

She’s a Democrat who hates President 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 of goods are rural Trump voters who helped him win Missouri by nearly 20 points in 2016.

Family farmers have lost billions 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 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 pocketbook-clutching issue that has tested the patience of rural Americans as uncertainty rages about future earnings days before the midterm elections.

Keeping his John Deere combine straight as the big green machine chews up hundreds of bushels worth of soybeans an hour, Dowell hollers over the 375 horsepower engine that Trump deserves a chance to address a problem that everyone knows exists.

The 41-year-old, third-generation farmer who lives on the farm his grandfather purchased in the 1960s, doesn’t like having less money in his pocket, but he says he sees the long game. It’s time someone stood up to China after years of espionage and price fixing.

“No change ever happens without a little hurt,” Dowell said, while checking his yield on one of the many onboard computers.

But Peterson, 69, who lives with her husband Charles in the white farm house overlooking the field, can’t help rolling 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.”


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

Trump’s 25 percent tariffs are mainly aimed at curbing imports from China, but Beijing retaliated with taxes 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 insists 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 told farmers attending the Future Farmers of America’s annual convention in Indianapolis recently. “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 impact of the tariffs — and keep the rural vote — Trump announced a $12 billion bailout for farmers earlier this year. Trump visited Columbia on Thursday and plans to visit Cape Girardeau on Monday, where he’ll throw his support behind Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley in one of the most hotly contested 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 think 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 says it 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 and unpredictable weather — Missouri experienced a long drought this year — and farming is a high risk industry. Farm income has dropped more than 50 percent in the last 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, agriculture secretary during the Reagan administration and who helps build support for Trump’s trade policies among farmers, said farmers understand the difficult challenges involving China. They also accept that commodity prices are low not just because of the tariffs, but 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 involved 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.”

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Rick Oswald, 68, a soybean farmer from Rock Port, Mo, estimates Trump’s trade war could cost him 20 percent of his annual soybean profits. Franco Ordonez McClatchy

Climbing down a 3,500 bushel grain bin, holding nearly $30,000 worth of soybeans, Rick Oswald, 68, said the trade war reminds him of the Soviet grain embargo nearly 40 years ago that pushed many of his friends out of the business. At the time, then-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. cuts its own sales to the Soviet Union, countries like Argentina and Brazil seized on the opportunity and their own grain markets, which they sold 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.”

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Kile and Sandi Guthrey, of Marshall, Missouri, said the area used to be very Democratic, but now has shifted to Republican. Talking about President Trump, Kile said, “I don’t like his tone...It’s not presidential.” Shelly Yang syang@kcstar.com

In the basement of the Marshall Courthouse, the county commissioners of Saline County hold a public meeting to discuss new programs, including one to encourage young farmers to remain in the community.

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

Enthusiasm for Trump remains strong in the rural America, he said, and it could be just enough to push the Republican state attorney general, Hawley, to Washington, defeating McCaskill. Clemens points out how Trump endorsements have helped other Republicans win tight primaries, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach in Kansas.

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 the tariffs will drive out more young struggling farmers.

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

Turning his combine to drop off more soybeans, Dowell said he’s never wanted to do anything else but farm. He plans to hold onto his soybeans, hoping whispers he’s heard of an imminent deal are true.

“If they get it done in six months, I think that is a very optimistic view,” Dowell said. “It could take a couple years. China is China. They’re pretty set in their ways too. We have a lot to offer the rest of the world at a very cheap price. So I think over time it’ll be good as long as everyone gives it time. Change doesn’t come easy.”

Kile Guthrey, presiding commissioner of Saline County, Missouri, talks about how tariffs affected rural Missouri and its politics and midterm election.

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez
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