Trump's latest wins for farmers may not undo trade damage

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE’s new water rule cements a campaign promise to farmers to reverse a controversial Obama-era policy, but it may not be enough to win over an agricultural industry that has seen markets evaporate under his trade wars.

In the past two weeks, Trump has delivered some of his biggest wins for farmers, shepherding through an initial trade deal with China that would boost agricultural purchases, securing the passage of a new agreement with Canada and Mexico, and on Thursday, offering his replacement for Obama’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule that was near universally-despised by farmers.

But Trump’s efforts to woo farmers who say they are undecided for 2020 may come up short, as a new water policy will do little to counter the financial hits agricultural producers have taken from tariffs.

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Disappearing markets in China have left stockpiles of soybeans. Oil policies and trade wars have diminished the market for corn-based ethanol. And extreme weather has made it a tough year for farming in the Midwest. 

“A lot of farmers voted for him with the hope of better days, let's put it that way, and then between the trade issues and the ethanol issues the bloom is of the rose,” said Tim Dufault, a self-described “radical moderate” who grows wheat and soybeans on his fourth-generation family farm in Crookston, Minn.

“There’s been a lot of grumbling. It's all going to depend on who the candidate is that he’ll be facing this fall, but I’ve got to think that there are a good chunk of farmers that supported him this time are going to be bailing this fall.”

Trump’s new water policy, the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, was welcome news to a wide variety of farm and industry groups. The rule removes federal protections for many smaller bodies of water--a direct contrast to Obama’s WOTUS, which faced a slew of legal battles as farmers and others argued it was overreaching and would subject huge swaths of land to federal oversight.

“This new rule I think is definitely going to swing some people in the direction of Trump,” said Shayne Isane, a farmer with 5,000 acres outside Badger, Minn., just 25 miles south of the Canadian border.

A self-professed moderate who has hosted 2020 hopeful Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE (D-Minn.) on his farm, Isane said his initially favorable view of Trump has faltered over the last three years. But he’s starting to warm to him again--describing him as a president, fresh off a speech to the Farm Bureau's annual conference, that has always prioritized agriculture.  

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“We haven't had a lot of good news in farm country, and we needed some wins, and now we’ve had three in a row,” he said, referring to the two trade deals and the new water rule. “I think that will get some support for Trump in the heartland and in the ag community.”

But the new water rule, popular as it may be, may not have the same sway as the trade deals.

“I wasn't losing sleep over it because even before Trump got into office, there were court cases against it, and I just looked at it as 'this is a boon for attorneys' because this will be in court for years before anything comes down to the farm level,” Dufault remembers thinking about WOTUS. 

For all of farmers’ concerns with the Obama rule, it was never implemented, while the trade wars have had a sharp impact on their bottom lines.

“We never felt the effects of that, it was just the fear of the unknown... the trade and ethanol issues have caused a lot more consternation,” said Mark Recker, a corn and soybean farmer from Arlington, Iowa. 

Several farmers expressed skepticism over the recently announced trade deals, including the one with China, which will require a massive increase in the number of ag products the country typically buys from the U.S. 

“There just is no financial recovery so far,” said Tim Burrack, who farms down the road from Recker in Arlington, and estimates he’s lost $265,000 to various Trump policies.

The trade deals are still fresh, but how they change the financial landscape over the next 10 months will be critical.

“I think farmers in general like Trump; if you do look at any of the polling, a large majority of farmers support Trump. The issue is on these trade issues and ethanol, and if it looks like we're still getting the short end of the stick,” Recker said.

“They may not vote for a Democrat. But they may not support the president if they don't see improvement in our market. If we don't see that, farmers may just stay home come Election Day.”

But it’s tough to know just how critical a voting block undecided farmers may be. Trump is as polarizing in farm country as he is in the rest of the country, with some firmly in his camp and others strongly opposed.

“By and large I'd say the farmers I know of across the country have continued to support this president, and that has not waned in any way,” said Pete Hanebutt, director of public policy for the North Dakota Farm Bureau.  

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But there will always be a battle for swing voters, no matter how large their numbers.

“I think we’re so polarized that the people who supported him will support him and the people against him are against him,” said Charlie Vogel, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers.

“The moveable middle is becoming a very sought after and rare group. By the time we get to Election Day we’re going to have an idea if the China deal is working. If it's failing up and blowing up, that might be some loss of support for that small moveable middle.” 

Updated on Jan. 27 at 11:45 a.m.