At his campaign events, President Donald Trump often reserves time to talk about farmers. At one such rally, he called them “great patriots,” while on other occasions he has bragged that they would be the beneficiaries of his talks with China and renegotiation of NAFTA.
Yet, when farmers speak for themselves, the Trump administration doesn’t listen.
For instance, the National Family Farm Coalition, an umbrella organization of some two dozen groups from around the country, has denounced Trump’s NAFTA revision for its paltry attention to environmental issues and overreliance on exports to deal with low prices.
Last year, farmers in Wisconsin hosted a series of meetings with their Canadian counterparts to learn about how the supply management system on the other side of the border could be adapted to address chronic problems in the U.S. dairy industry. And Farm Women United, a Pennsylvania-based group, has demanded that Congress investigate the corporate control of agriculture and hear testimony on how to reform our nation’s pricing policies.
Not only has the Trump administration not listened, some of its members have openly scoffed at the problems that farmers face.
Sonny Perdue, Trump’s secretary of agriculture, cracked the joke that two farmers in a basement should be called a “whine cellar.” Then, at an event in Wisconsin, Perdue told family farmers witnessing the bottom falling out of the dairy industry that “in America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”
The problems in rural America are no joke. Farm incomes have rebounded slightly this year, but do not make up for the last four years of declining sales and rising costs. And farmers receive only about eight cents from every dollar spent on food, as retailers, restaurants and processors take the rest.
Meanwhile, according to the 2017 agriculture census, the average age of working farmers is now 57.5 years and continuing to climb.
Farming is a profession in urgent need of new blood, not empty platitudes and putdowns. Our nation’s agricultural policies need to keep families on the land, provide ways for the next generation to succeed and promote environmental stewardship. The policies coming out of Washington, D.C., do none of these things.
Instead of adopting measures that farmer organizations have proposed, the Trump administration has chosen to provide bailouts on two separate occasions. Such assistance is prompted by the negative effects on rural communities from Trump’s ongoing trade dispute with China.
Recently, when news broke that China had agreed to purchase upwards of $50 billion in farm products over two years, Trump responded by encouraging farmers to buy “bigger” and “more powerful” tractors. Yet while details on this purchase remain unclear, similar advice led farmers in 1970s to expand their operations.
The results were disastrous. By the 1980s, land values dropped, exports markets dried up, and the farm families that bought bigger tractors and more land were filing for bankruptcy in record numbers.
Perhaps China will indeed purchase $50 billion next year, or over the next few. But then what? If farmers listen to the president, then many may end up just like they did back in the 1980s — broke and humiliated.
Farmer organizations understand better than the government how to solve agricultural problems. Yet instead of listening to the people who get their hands dirty growing our food, Trump prefers to use them as campaign props. This is not only disrespectful, but potentially disastrous for rural America.
Anthony Pahnke (anthonypahnke.com) is vice president of Family Farm Defenders and an assistant professor of international relations at San Francisco State University in San Francisco. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.