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Kansas And Missouri Farmers Are Sticking With Trump Despite The Hard Times He's Caused Them

Frank Morris
Kansas farmer Luke Ulrich faces long hours and low pay in part because of President Trump's trade policies, but he still backs Trump.

Most farmers haven't had a single good year since President Trump took office, and Trump’s policies on trade, immigration and ethanol are part of the problem.

Yet farmers, who broadly supported Trump in 2016, are sticking with him as the impeachment inquiry moves forward.

“You see everyone circling their wagons now, and the farm community is no different in that,” says John Herath, the news director at Farm Journal.

The farm magazine polls more than a thousand farmers monthly. Herath says Trump’s popularity slumped a bit in the summer, but he notes it bounced back to 76% favorable the week the U.S. House launched its impeachment inquiry.

‘Scratching our heads’

Farmer Luke Ulrich says he works at least 12 hours a day, almost every day, tending his crops and cattle near Baldwin City, Kansas. 

Ulrich anticipates a decent corn and soybean crop this year. But his expenses are so high, and the prices he’s getting for his crops and cattle are so low, he’s budgeting less than $25,000 in income for the whole year.

“We more or less live off my wife’s income,” says Ulrich, looking up from the combine he’s fixing. “She carries the benefits. If it wasn’t for her we’d probably be sunk.”

President Trump is partly to blame for low grain prices. China retaliated against his tariffs by all but closing a giant export market for Ulrich’s soybeans.

“I'd probably be lying if I said some of us aren't scratching our heads every once in a while,” says Ulrich. “I sometimes wonder if he didn't bite off a little more than he could chew."

The Trump administration hurt demand for corn by allowing dozens of oil refineries to sidestep their legal obligations to use billions of gallons of corn-based ethanol in gasoline blends.

Still, Ulrich says he’s not mad at Trump. He loves Trump’s hands-off approach to environmental regulations, and he appreciates the $28 billion aid package that Trump’s agriculture department has distributed to compensate farmers for what they’re losing in export sales.

Walking the line

Pat Westhoff, who directs the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, says farm bankruptcies are up sharply this year and says the so-called “trade aid” payments are crucial.

“Every dollar counts right now, so it's a difference between profit and loss for many producers,” says Westhoff.

Trump has mitigated some of the problems he’s caused farmers. Sara Wyant, president of Agri-Pulse Communications, has been polling farmers about Trump for years and says they’ve stood by him through it all.

“That is not going to hold forever,” warns Wyant. “That is going to be a position that when some of them start to face, well, either it's Trump or going out of business, they're not going to be still voting for Trump.”

But many farmers are keeping their hopes up. That’s what they tell Jim Mintert, director of the Center for Commercial Agriculture at Purdue University. Mintert says two-thirds of the 400 farmers he polls each month look for a happy ending to the trade wars.

“I wouldn't say that we've seen any evidence of people becoming, less supportive of the administration's trade policy,” says Mintert. “That’s not to say farmers aren't concerned. They are very definitely concerned.”

Deeply personal politics

Trump’s tried to ease those concerns. He’s promised progress on trade, pledged to force oil companies to use billions of gallons more ethanol.

And then there are the $28 billion in so-called “market facilitation payments” over and above other farm subsidies and disaster assistance.

And politics are deeply personal these days, according to Chris Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. Larimer says farmers have to square their economic differences with Trump, with their partisan allegiance to him.

“These partisan identities are hardening,” says Larimer. “So, you kind of have forces pushing in both ways. And it's sort of this ongoing experiment to see which one breaks first.”

For now, political ideology seems to be winning. While there’s a lot of grumbling about Trump among farmers, neither the trade wars nor the impeachment investigations seem to be driving them away from him, yet.  

Frank Morris is a national NPR correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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