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Trump failed on trade and ethanol, says Democratic farm forum

Rural America, and farmers in particular, voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in 2016 but have suffered rather than benefitted for it, said speakers on a “farmers and ranchers roundtable” organized by the Biden-Harris campaign. The forum, held 10 days ahead of the traditional fall campaign kickoff of Labor Day, criticized Trump for using agriculture as a pawn in the Sino-U.S. trade war and labeled him weak on ethanol.

Trump is highly popular with farmers, who tend to be socially and fiscally conservative. In a straw poll by Farm Journal on Aug. 14, 82% of respondents backed Trump, roughly the same as previous tests. A survey of producers by DTN/Progressive Farmer in early August found 71% support for Trump, down 18 points from April, but a landslide margin. Neighbors will say they have experienced “the toughest two, three years they can remember,” said Pennsylvania farmer Rick Telesz, on the Democratic roundtable. “And the next sentence, they’re saying, ‘I’m voting for Trump.’ ”

It may be an enormous challenge to win the rural vote, but Democratic nominee Joe Biden would benefit if Democrats reduce the Republican margin. In 2016, for example, Trump narrowly won three key states, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which have sizable rural populations.

“There was no plan going into those trade wars and in the end, did we really get great deals?” asked a skeptical Darin Von Rudin, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. “One of my greatest frustrations of the last six months really has been our president’s leadership and the whole COVID-19 crisis. You know there has not been anything there at the national level.”

U.S. farm exports slumped as a result of tit-for-tat tariffs with China, and trade-war payments from the administration did not fully offset the damage, said the panelists. “Trying to use trade as a negotiation tool is very difficult because it really affects our bottom line,” said Texas rancher Kim Ratcliffe. Ohio farmer Tenah McMahan said there had “definitely been an impact” on corn prices because of the administration’s dallying over Renewable Fuel Standard.

Trump approved year-round sale of E15, a higher blend of ethanol into gasoline than the standard 10%, but the EPA has granted dozens of exemptions from compliance to small refiners during Trump’s term, to the dismay of farm and ethanol groups. The EPA has not said if it will implement an appellate court ruling that would mostly rule out such waivers in the future. During a visit to Iowa on Aug. 18, Trump said, “I’ll speak to them myself,” when Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican running for re-election, raised the issue. Republican lawmakers have periodically asked Trump to intervene with the EPA on ethanol.

House Agriculture chairman Collin Peterson urged removal of U.S. tariffs on China as a way to defuse the trade war and aid farmers. Texas Rep. Filemon Vela, who chairs an Agriculture subcommittee, said farmers were “tired of the chaos” of the Trump years and “these failed trade deals.”

Agriculture was not mentioned in the “set of core priorities for a second term” released by the Trump campaign, although it said details will be released in “policy-focused speeches” by the president. By contrast, Biden has the traditional detailed platform on rural issues. It calls for investments in beginning farmers and agricultural research, generating farm revenue through carbon capture, promoting ethanol and other biofuels, expanding broadband service in rural areas, improving health care in rural areas, and promoting rural economic growth.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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