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Issues That Farmers Face Are Testing Trump's Rural Support


Farmers in the rural Midwest say they're struggling. They blame President Trump's ongoing trade war and a recent decision on renewable fuels made from corn and soybeans that helps the oil industry. Here's Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Near his farm just north of Des Moines, Aaron Lehman steers his tractor down a rural road, carrying a couple loads of hay. Lehman is president of the Iowa Farmers Union and says his members are in rough shape.

AARON LEHMAN: We are tightening our belt. We're talking to our lenders, our landlords, our input suppliers, trying to find any way we can to cut costs just to make ends meet.

MASTERS: Lehman didn't vote for Donald Trump, and he says with low commodity prices, Midwest farmers are concerned about the escalating trade war.

LEHMAN: Instead we chose to insult our trade allies, pick all sorts of fights with our trade allies and then go to China and make outrageous demands that we knew were not going to be met.

MASTERS: The Trump administration has doled out billions of dollars in relief to farmers for taking the brunt of the trade war. And back in June, President Trump came to Council Bluffs, Iowa, with an announcement meant to calm those concerns. His administration cleared the way for higher blends of corn-based ethanol. For context here, 40% of the United States' corn crop goes to ethanol production.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We lifted the restrictions on E15, just in time to fuel America's summer vacations. We just made it.


MASTERS: But the president also granted dozens of waivers to oil refineries, exempting them from blending ethanol. That's leading more than 15 ethanol plants to close their doors. Trump recently tweeted he would be unveiling a giant package that would help these farmers, but Iowa Democratic Congresswoman Cindy Axne, who faces a tough race next year, says she'll believe it when she sees it.

CINDY AXNE: He said he's the best thing that's ever happened to farmers and, literally, two months later, had his finger on issuing waivers to Exxon and Chevron, multibillion dollar companies.

MASTERS: But some farmers, like Dave Walton with the Iowa Soybean Association, welcome the president's negotiating.

DAVE WALTON: We can only talk so much before we actually take action, and he took action. And we really saw this coming. I mean, he campaigned on it, so it's no surprise.

MASTERS: Walton voted for the president in 2016. He admits the negotiations have gone on longer than he thought they would. And soy biodiesel has also been affected by those refinery waivers. Ask him if he's voting for Trump next year...

WALTON: My vote's still up for grabs.

MASTERS: Economist Ernie Goss at Creighton University says his research shows the president's trade policies are shrinking the rural economy. Goss oversees a monthly survey of rural bank CEOs in the Midwest and Plains.

ERNIE GOSS: Seven out of 10 of the bankers support either continuing with the tariffs or, in some cases, raising the tariffs. So their belief is that the long-term gain will outweigh the short-term pain.

MASTERS: That anxiety is something Democrats running for president are talking about in Iowa. Democrats are hoping to peel off some of Trump's support; it's high hopes in swing states like Iowa, which went for the president by almost 10 points in 2016.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA "BEHIND THE WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Clay Masters is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio and formerly for Harvest Public Media. His stories have appeared on NPR
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