President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks during the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 100th Annual Convention Monday, Jan. 14, at the New Orleans Ernest N. Memorial Convention Center, in New Orleans, Louisiana. White House photo
Written by David Castellon
When President Donald Trump took the oath of office back in January 2017, he did so with high hopes among farmers, ranchers and others in the agricultural industry here in the Valley and across the country.
“There was a lot of excitement for Trump to enter the race,” recounted Nick Davis, president of the Madera County Farm Bureau.
That appeal stemmed from his background not as a career politician but as a businessman, and it didn’t matter that his business dealings mostly dealt with high-end real estate and the entertainment industry, not with farming or the food industry, he said.
Initially, farmers wondered, “what was this guy going to do for the ag community?” Davis said of candidate Trump, whose impression among farmers had improved considerably by election day.
“I think he comes across as a blue-collar businessman, even though he is very successful. He still has a way of relating to everyday people,” added Casey Creamer, president of California Citrus Mutual, an Exeter-based, nonprofit trade association representing most citrus growers across California.
“I think he relates to people who work with their hands for a living.”
But after two-and-a-half years of running the country and initiating a series of trade disputes with China, India, Mexico, Canada and other countries that reportedly have cost U.S. ag businesses and other industries billions of dollars, and locking horns with Democrats on immigration reform to the point that that issue looks even more bogged down than it was when he came into office, Trump’s luster from his days as a shiny new president has diminished among a large number of U.S. farmers, according to news reports.
“Amid increasing tariffs and controversial biofuels policies, farmer support for President Donald Trump is waning,” states the first line of a recent article in the Farm Journal magazine, citing a poll of farmers.
It showed 71% of those surveyed approved of the job Trump was doing, down from 79% in July, while the ratio of farmers saying they strongly supported the president was 43%, a 10%-decline from July.
The shift isn’t surprising, as the disputes — particularly the series of high retaliatory tariffs Washington and Beijing have imposed — have cost the U.S. billions in sales of ag goods alone in the lucrative Chinese market, the U.S.’s second largest agricultural trading partner after Canada last year.
Reuters news agency reported that over the final 10 months of last year, agricultural shipments to China declined by 42% to about $8.3 billion. And as the dispute — now an outright trade war in the eyes of many — has drawn out, more tariffs have since been imposed.
Paying the costs
“Roughly two-thirds of [U.S.] fruits and nuts are produced in California,” and all told the Chinese tariffs on American goods could cost U.S. producers more than $3 billion in sales annually, states a July report to the state’s Assembly Select Committee on Asia/California Trade and Investment Promotion.
Sales of California wines in China, alone, declined by 25% percent from April to September of this year, and pistachio sales may have suffered a significant sales drop had Iran not had so bad a harvest this year, the report continues.
Big U.S. crops mostly grown in the Midwest that include corn and soy have been particularly hard hit by the tariffs, and Chinese suppliers are looking to other foreign markets to get the commodities cheaper, but California, which exports mostly specialty crops and processed ag goods to China, also has seen sales of citrus, nuts, stone fruit, pork and wine — to name a few — decline, but generally not as severely as the rates Midwest farmers are experiencing.
While the Trump administration is offering billions of dollars in aid to offset those losses, most of that money is going to Midwest farmers, with little going to farmers here.
Still, though farmers here have certainly felt the financial sting from Trump’s trade policies, at least among Valley farmers and ranchers, support for the president doesn’t seem to have changed much, the industry experts said.
Part of the reason is farmers here aren’t getting hit as hard financially as their Midwest brethren, so they’re able to hold out longer and support Trump holding his course on trade, the experts said.
“People understand that China has not always played by the rules, and they appreciate somebody who is wiling to stand up there. I think a future trade agreement will be better for the United States and better for agriculture once all this is sort of settled,” Creamer said.
He cited the Trump Administration successfully renegotiating the existing North American Free Trade Agreement to produce the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Though some have called the new agreement — which has yet to go into effect because some government agencies have yet to certify it — comparable to the old one, Creamer said at least for citrus, USMCA stabilizes the export markets with the two countries and has more enforceable provisions for violations.
“You’ve got now the Japan [trade] agreement that’s going to be in place soon. It’s been agreed to, so we’ll see some lower tariffs there in Japan, so there are trade agreements lining up in the world that we think in the long term will benefit our trading to those countries.”
“I wouldn’t say that some aren’t disgruntled with this situation or prefer for a resolution to come to it, but at the same time … my members have identified that this is a bigger fight,” said Ian Lemay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, a nonprofit based in Fresno representing growers and shippers of 13 fresh fruit commodities including table grapes and stone fruits.
“It’s not just associated with agriculture products. There’s intellectual property issues, and I believe that my members respect this has been a long-standing issue between the United States and China and that the president and his administration are fighting a fight that is worth it on behalf of both U.S. consumers and U.S. businesses,” he said.
The wet stuff
Industry experts say Trump’s support in the Valley ag community has other roots.
Early on in the presidential election, Trump expressed an interest in working on California water issues, said Ryan Jacobsen, CEO and executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.
“That is something he brought up several times as an issue of great importance to him, to resolve the water issues for California farmers and ranchers,” he said. “That obviously got the attention of farmers and ranchers locally very quickly.”
Probably the second campaign issue that drew farmers and ranchers to support Trump was his very vocal criticism of the abundant regulations imposed on ag, Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen and others in the ag industry said presidential candidates rarely tend to give ag issues as much time in their talking points as Trump did, and doing so made an impact on getting him agriculture’s support.’
“His candidacy put those real issues on the map, because no other candidate was really focusing on those issues,” he said, adding that the “novelty” of being a political outsider also piqued interest in Trump among farmers.
“His candidacy, more than any others, really tried to grasp on what’s going on un rural America and other issues,” with the added benefit that Trump regularly attending events where he could specifically address farmers and ranchers, including the American Farm Bureau Convention, Jacobsen said.
In addition, the experts said, as far as a lot of farmers are concerned, the president has followed through on his promises to look out for them, which has included a directive for federal officials to speed up their analysis to determine if elevating the use of pumps along the San Joaquin Delta to deliver more water south would worsen the survival rates of delta smelt.
Farmers in the Valley who use delta water have long argued that too much of that water is staying in the delta and flowing out to sea to protect the smelt’s habitat, when that extra water should be made available for irrigation and supplying water to some communities.
“We know the science used [in the past] in the delta is outdated, but the processes are slow at the federal and state levels,” Creamer said. “It’s about getting the process more expedited in a businesslike approach.”
As such, Trump’s promises to work on California’s water issues, “That is, by far what rises to the top for many folks as far as what he’s done.”
But not all of Trump’s policies have made farmers happy. They’ve long wanted federal lawmakers to pass an immigration reform package that would allow workers from Mexico and South America to legally come into the U.S, ad then return home, but the issue has become bogged down by Trump’s fight with Democrats over border wall funding and his efforts to change individual immigration rules.
“Yes, we understand President Trump would like to keep Mexico at bay by building a wall, although we appreciate that, it is hurting our farming community by reducing the amount of farm laborers available for our on-farm operations,” Davis said. “We need to get cross-border labor into the United States, in particular in California.”
As such, based on the current climate in Washington, it seems farmers who currently are dealing with worker shortages may have a very long wait before lawmakers may attempt to tackle comprehensive immigration reform.
As for the Trump’s tariff dispute with China, LeMay said, “there probably is an extent to how long we’d like to see this go, and there’s an extent to the amount of business impacts we’d like to see.
“But also, it has to do with what any opponent of the president — let’s say in the 2020 election — what is their vision? And to this point there hasn’t been a vision laid out that is better than the current situation,” he said.
“Until that time that a better path forward is presented, I think you will see the industry stay supportive” of the president, LeMay added.