Some two-thirds of the nation’s farmers cast their votes for Donald Trump in 2016, as did a similar percentage of non-farmers in rural, small-town America. They entrusted him to confront burdensome regulation, lower taxes, and improve trade.
But Trump has fallen far short of their expectations, offering piecemeal solutions to matters that require bold leadership and creativity.
At the time of the election, farm incomes were already in decline. Now, while forecasts for 2019 show an improvement over 2018’s 12-year low, this increase still places farmers at approximately half of what they received in 2014. Meanwhile, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, dairy farmers continue to exit the industry in record numbers due to low prices and overproduction, and trade disputes that have depressed corn and soy prices.
Trump did not create the crisis in farm country, but his administration’s policies are woefully inadequate to address it. Looking closer at the data on farm income helps illustrate the underlying crisis in rural America.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s figures are divided between on- and off-farm sources of income. Concerning on-farm sources, average incomes have remained stagnant since 2014.
Yes, that’s right — income from activities directly related to farming did not increase at all during the past five years, across all sectors. The USDA says this has resulted in more than half of farms having to rely on off-farm sources of income to continue.
Furthermore, of the approximately 2 million farms that remain in operation, 105,453 of these account for a whopping 75% of all sales, according to the 2017 agricultural census. That farmers need to get a second or even a third job to keep working should strike Americans as unacceptable.
This dismal reality in rural America calls for innovative leadership. That has not come from Trump. Instead, he has, on two occasions, provided bailouts to farmers, mostly to make up for losses that he caused.
Many small and medium-sized farms have received one-time payments of $10,000, which do little to offset the years of declining income and increasing debt. Meanwhile, four large national operators have each received handouts in excess of $1 million.
During a fundraising appearance in Milwaukee in mid-July, Trump proclaimed that his prowess at utilizing tariffs and cutting trade deals had pushed the nation’s farmers “over the hump.” But his glowing report was soundly contradicted two weeks later by Wisconsin’s senior U.S. senator, Ron Johnson, a conservative Republican and usual Trump ally.
“No, they’re suffering,” Johnson said of the state’s farmers. “The trade wars are not helping that whatsoever.”
The situation is not hopeless. An emergency floor price of $20 per 100 pounds of milk could be established for family-scale dairy farmers. Similarly, the proposal for parity pricing would offset the costs that grain farmers are experiencing.
Some farmers’ advocates are calling for congressional hearings on the state of rural America, to highlight the negative effects of corporate concentration in most farm sectors and the need for anti-trust law enforcement.
Considering proposals like these, not periodically cutting checks, is the real way to address rural America’s current crisis.
Anthony Pahnke (anthonypahnke.com) is vice president of the group 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.