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Nebraska Farmers Talk Tariffs And Trade


When President Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese-made steel and aluminum, China hit back. It put tariffs on U.S. agricultural products, among other things. American farmers were outraged. But it seems their anger has faded a little. NPR's Don Gonyea visited some farmers in Nebraska, and he found frustration, yes, but also hope that things might not be as bad as people feared at first.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Sitting at the large table in the Petro Mart gas station and restaurant in Blair, Neb., 70-year-old Joe Fryman (ph) describes his lifelong profession this way.

JOE FRYMAN: I just tell some people I'm a professional gambler. So I bury stuff in the ground, and after six months hope I can make a profit out of it.

GONYEA: Fryman is here for breakfast with a group of friends, all of them senior citizens, most of them still farming. And there's some commiserating going on.

FRYMAN: I just wish we knew what the end game was in this whole tariff thing, and, are we being used as pawns in this chess game? And maybe there is no end game. Maybe we're playing this from the hip as we go along here.

GONYEA: Now, that's a Trump voter talking. Fryman does stress that he doesn't know that a trade war is going to mean bad things for farmers, but he says if it really kicks in, there'll be some real pain. Also at the table is 67-year-old Rich Scebold (ph). He voted for Trump, calling him the lesser of two evils on the ballot. But Scebold is not really upset that Trump is picking a fight with China over trade. That's not an easy position for a farmer to take, but you can hear him working it out in his head.

RICH SCEBOLD: I guess I'm for it, but it's going to hurt, I think. But I did see some news on my phone that said that China's already kind of backpedaling just a little bit. So maybe it's going to boil down to who's got the biggest...

GONYEA: Whatever.

SCEBOLD: Whatever.


GONYEA: Another Trump voter having breakfast is Ken Olsen (ph). He's heard all the sky is falling predictions about what this trade skirmish will mean. He argues that even if U.S. farmers can't sell to China, they'll be just fine. There's global demand, he says, and lots of other international customers.

KEN OLSEN: There's only so big a pile of grain. I don't care if we have it, South America has it, Europe has it. They're not going to buy it from us, OK? They're going to Argentina. The people who buy from Argentina go buy from us. That's what people forget. It's not an unlimited pile.

GONYEA: Nebraska is a state that Trump won in a big landslide so it's no surprise a lot of farmers give him the benefit of the doubt. But not 76-year-old Roger Barber (ph), a Democrat who did not vote for Trump. He doesn't see a good ending here. For him, a precedent worth remembering is when the U.S. imposed a grain embargo against the Soviet Union in 1980 as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

ROGER BARBER: I saw the embargo before. I worked at a grain elevator. We gathered up $13 beans for two days. The embargo went on. They were worth five bucks. That's how quick it can change.

GONYEA: Barber says it's something that sticks with you.

BARBER: That's the scary part. I've been through that farm crisis, and I'm afraid we're coming to another.

GONYEA: Yesterday at the White House, elected officials from big ag states met with Trump. The president did offer that the U.S. might rejoin the trade deal known as TPP, which he pulled the U.S. out of more than a year ago. That would be good news to farmers, but making it happen won't be easy. And all of this means that another planting season arrives, but with an extra piece of uncertainty. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Omaha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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