Fearful farmers are ‘the tip of the spear’ in Trump’s trade wars
Donald Trump won 70% of the vote in parts of Kansas. Is that support under threat?
A Donald Trump during the Kansas state Republican caucus in 2016 in Wichita. Photograph: J Pat Carter/Getty Images
It’s just after 8pm on a warm June evening, and a crowd has gathered at the Finney County Fairgrounds in Garden City, Kansas.
As the spectators soak up the last of the evening sun, their gaze is fixed on the dusty arena below, where lines of cowboys are poised to enter the grounds. The umpire gives the signal, and the crowd erupts. Three men on horseback gallop into the arena tasked with rounding up cattle, their Stetsons shielding their eyes from the dust and dirt that rises up from the ground.
Ranchers from across an area of about 100 square miles have gathered to compete in the annual ranch rodeo competition – one of many that take place throughout the Midwest and southern states of the United States.
Like the other vast states of the American Midwest, Kansas developed rapidly in the late 19th century as settlers moved westwards in search of land. About 50 miles east of Garden City is Dodge City, the quintessential frontier town right in the centre of the US, where ranchers from across the prairies brought their cattle for sale before they were transported to the great trading hubs of Chicago and cities farther east.
Kansas has long been traditional Republican territory. It is more than 50 years since the state backed a Democrat in a presidential election – Lyndon Johnson, who won the election in a landslide. The state’s two senators and four representatives in Washington are all Republicans.
Donald Trump comfortably won the state in 2016, claiming 56.2 per cent of the vote, compared with 35.7 per cent for Hillary Clinton. While most of the Democratic vote clustered around Kansas City in the far east of the state and to a lesser extent Wichita, here in the western part of the state where Garden City is, more than 70 per cent backed the billionaire businessman for president.
But there have been signs that this support may be in jeopardy. In recent months Trump had made good on threats to revisit the US’s trade deals with other countries – a key campaign promise during the election.
In addition to a 25 per cent levy on steel and 10 per cent tariff on EU aluminium imports, the Trump administration is engaged in fractious negotiations with Beijing about addressing China’s $360 billion trade deficit with the United States.
Discussions on Nafta – the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada – have been taking place for months, with indications this week that the president wants to abandon the 20-year trade pact altogether and negotiate with each country bilaterally.
While Trump has hailed the fact that some American steel plants have reopened as a result of his metal measures – though disregarding the impact higher metal import prices will have on many US manufacturing businesses – the real impact of his trade policy is likely to be felt in the big agricultural states such as Kansas, as farmers brace themselves for retaliatory actions from China and Mexico.
Kansas is heavily dependent on farming. Agriculture accounts for about 50 per cent of the state’s economy, much more in the western half of the state, as evidenced by the huge cornfields that stretch towards the horizon around Garden City and the dairy and feed plants that dot the flat, empty landscape.
The state’s chief agricultural commodities are beef and dairy, wheat, soybeans, corn and sorghum, a form of cereal also known as milo that is used in animal feed.
In 2016 Kansas – which is about three times the size of the island of Ireland – exported almost $3.4 billion worth of agricultural products. About half of all wheat produced in Kansas is shipped abroad, including to Mexico, which significantly increased its purchase of American wheat when Nafta was signed in the 1990s. Kansas is also the US’s leading producer of sorghum, which has attracted a premium price from Chinese purchasers, eager to import the cheaper alternative to corn.
Unsurprisingly Trump’s recent moves on trade are raising alarm bells in rural regions of the US.
The state’s senior senator in Congress, Pat Roberts, who heads the Senate agricultural committee in Washington, is among those who have warned the Trump administration not to use the US’s farmers as “collateral damage” in trade talks with China and Mexico.
Senators from neighbouring states such as Idaho and Nebraska have also spoken out. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska lambasted Trump last week for imposing tariffs on US allies, warning that it could return the country to the dark days of the great depression. “‘Make America Great Again’ shouldn’t mean ‘Make America 1929 again,’” he said.
Garden City’s local paper, the Garden City Telegraph, highlighted the issue in its editorial last week.
“Many Kansas farmers who voted for president Trump now know the pain of his agenda,” intoned the paper. “The Republican celebrated as a business whiz may understand casinos and real estate development … but appears clueless when it comes to world commodities and a complex trading system.”
For farmers, views on Donald Trump’s trade policy, 16 months after his inauguration, are a lot more nuanced.
About an hour’s drive north of Garden City is the France family farm, a secluded family-owned enterprise in the heart of rural America. Amy France, her husband, Clinton, and their children are the third generation to operate the farm that has been in Clint’s family for decades.
The Frances have about 250 acres of dryland corn, and also produce wheat, milo and soybeans, as well as owning cattle. But it’s not easy.
“What we have seen in the last three years or so is a rapid decline in farm income,” says Amy, explaining that commodity prices have fallen due to high wheat yields and oversupply in global markets. “Many of the older generation of farmers say it is now as bad as the ’80s.”
Some of their friends have sold their businesses, usually going to work on another ranch or for another agriculture-related industry. Amy has recently begun growing pumpkins and watermelons in an effort to offset tough times in other areas. In other parts of Kansas, cotton production has returned as farmers seek to diversify.
Amy, who is heavily involved with the local Kansas Farm Bureau, is watching closely the passage of the Farm Bill, which is currently going through Congress in Washington. In particular, small and medium-sized farms want to ensure that the subsidised programme for crop insurance is retained – damage to crops from extreme weather is a regular occurrence in this part of the hemisphere.
But they are also growing increasingly uneasy about changes in trade policy as Trump lurches closer towards protectionism. “Agriculture is always the tip of the spear when it comes to trade wars,” says Amy. “It is generally the first sector to get hit.”
Like most people in this part of the United States, both Amy and Clint voted for Trump. Amy is well aware of the impact any retaliatory action by countries that import American agricultural products could have on export markets and commodity prices. “It’s scary. Here in the wheat belt we are likely to feel first the impact of any changes, even though this community helped elect the president in the first place.”
But like many long-standing Republican supporters in this district, Clint and Amy are willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. “I think there was a need to shake things up – other countries were taking advantage of America in some areas – so president Trump was correct in that sense, but it is important to proceed carefully with the negotiations.”
While Amy admits that the president’s unique style and incessant tweeting worries her sometimes – “You think, oh gosh, what is he going to say next?” – she believes that ultimately the voice of Republican farmers will be heard. She appreciates that Trump travelled to Nashville earlier this year to attend the American Farm Bureau Federation Convention.
“Other presidents have been invited, but he was the only one in 25 years to attend,” she points out. Though she did not attend the convention, she watched his speech on live-stream. “He spoke in detail about farm policy, but I noticed afterwards that the only line that was reported was his comment ‘Aren’t you glad you voted for me?’
“If I hadn’t watched the entire speech, I would have been dependent on media reports, that were overly negative. It makes you think about how this president is being presented by the media … ”
Amy and Clint’s views typify attitudes towards the president in this part of rural Kansas. Jerry Mies is one of the many successful businessman in the Garden City region whose livelihood depends on agriculture. His trucking business transports milk and milk products from several of the dairies and milk plants in the region. Today he has more than 100 trucks and tankers on the road transporting milk products as far afield as the east coast of the US.
As we inspect his impressive “Lactose Limousine” – a turquoise and silver truck with cowhide interiors that has won prizes at the annual Great American Trucking Show – he says one of his biggest concerns is laws limiting truck drivers’ travel times.
He voted for Donald Trump and remains a strong supporter, citing the Republican party’s commitment to reducing the regulatory burdens on businesses as a key reason for his support.
Like many businesses in the area, Mies employs some Hispanic immigrants, although most immigrants work in the meat plants and dairies that constitute most of the industry in the region.
A high percentage of Garden City’s residents are Hispanic – many undocumented immigrants from Mexico who work in manual agricultural jobs. Just as Trump’s trade policy may adversely affect a core constituency of his supporters, his hardline stance on immigration may also end up hurting farmers and agricultural businesses who depend on immigrant labour. But it is a contradiction that many Republican supporters are happy to live with.
Back at the Rodeo, families are eating hotdogs and watching the final minutes of the ranching competition in the late summer sun. Most of those I speak to say they still support Donald Trump, citing immigration as one of the reasons they voted for him.
One local resident, who recently sold his farm, says that while he supports the idea of a border wall with Mexico, he does think that the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country should be regularised – although he admits that it is politically unacceptable to many Republicans on the far-right.
Bob Lupvern, a farmer from a neighbouring county, has just been watching his son compete in the ranch rodeo. As talk turns to business, he says that times have been tough, highlighting the recent fall in prices.
But as for Trump, he says he would vote for him again. “Yes, he’s different, yes, he uses Twitter too much, but he’s trying to shake things up and do something different.
“Look what he’s doing with North Korea. Other presidents have let North Korea push us around. At the end of the day, Hillary Clinton would never have put us first. Trump will put America first.”