American farmers helped elect President Donald Trump in 2016 in hopes he would shake up Washington and turn around a struggling agricultural economy, but many of his policies have actually stung farmers.
While farmers indeed are hurting, many are directing their anger not at the Republican president but at Washington’s bureaucracy instead.
Trump has faced backlash from agricultural groups, ethanol producers and farm state politicians upset that his trade war with China has slashed export sales of soybeans. Corn futures tumbled after the government forecast a big crop even though a flood-ridden spring stalled planting. Ethanol plants shuttered after the administration granted dozens of waivers to oil refineries from complying with the law.
Polls show that while Trump’s support in farm country has slipped, it remains substantial.
Instead of directing their anger at Trump, dozens of farmers interviewed by Reuters blasted the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other Washington institutions they believe are thwarting his true agenda. Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories involving USDA staff are circulating in farm country and gaining traction online.
USDA did not respond to Reuters’ questions.
Farmers are struggling with how to emotionally process their pain from the policies — and anger at the USDA may be a coping mechanism, said Ted Matthews, a Minnesota psychologist who has spent 30 years counseling farmers and rural residents.
“The question I hear from farmers who voted for (Trump) is, ‘We believed him when he said he would help make the farm economy better, that we could save our farms. Now, who do we blame?’” Matthews said.
Many farmers told Reuters they intend to support Trump again in his reelection bid in 2020.
“It’s much easier to be angry at a faceless Washington bureaucracy than at the man you voted for,” said Jere Solvie, 69, grain and hog farmer from Minnesota who voted for Trump and supports him.
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The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted last month shows five in 10 U.S. adults in rural areas approved of Trump’s performance, higher than his 41 percent approval nationwide. A poll taken Sept, 2-5, released Tuesday by ABC News and the Washington Post, reported a slightly lower national number, saying Trump’s approval rating among voting-age Americans stands at 38 percent.
But his approval rating among farmers was 71 percent as of Aug. 23, although down from 79 percent in July, according to trade publication Farm Journal Pulse’s poll of 1,153 farmers.
Of the farmers who supported the president, 43 percent said they “strongly approve” — down 10 points from July and the first time the number fell below 50 percent. The farm journal’s poll came as ethanol groups complained that demand was decimated when Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency granted biofuel waivers to dozens of refineries, saving the oil industry hundreds of millions of dollars.
The USDA is a natural scapegoat and a topic of conspiracy theories among farmers suspicious of its sprawling bureaucracy, career employees and research that sometimes conflicts with what they see on their own farms.
One unidentified Iowa farmer, enraged by the USDA’s corn crop estimate, phoned in a threat last month that prompted the agency to pull its staff from a privately run Midwest crop tour.
This is a sharp contrast to early days in the administration, when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was a reliable point person. His folksy charm and appeal to patriotism helped sell Trump policies.
But Perdue’s honeymoon in farm country is over. Farmers last month booed him in Minnesota after he joked: “What do you call two farmers in a basement? A whine cellar.”
“He’s supposed to support us, especially during times of distress,” said Gary Wertish, a fourth-generation Minnesotan who farms 500 acres of corn, soybeans and navy beans, and heard the remarks in person.
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Trump voter Byron Heppler, a soybean and corn farmer from Calhoun, Ky., said he is open to considering other Republican candidates if any emerge. But he said he believes USDA’s research methods are flawed and eels its employees want to unseat Trump, although he offered no evidence.
Other disgruntled farmers have also alleged, without offering evidence, that federal agriculture employees are overestimating corn plantings as part of a plot to hurt Trump in the 2020 election. These farmers said they believe USDA employees are upset the administration is relocating hundreds of economists and other researchers to Kansas City from Washington.
The agency has stood by its forecasts, saying they are in part based on surveys of thousands of farmers. On Trump’s order, the agency has rolled out $28 billion in support for farmers hurt by his trade wars over the past two years.
Wes Hitchcock, a corn farmer and Trump supporter in Sparks, Neb., wrote 1,700-word paper entitled “USDA vs. Trump” and has repeatedly posted it on Facebook in a grain market discussion group with 13,000 members.
Hitchcock said he was unable to plant about 30 percent of the 2,200 corn acres he had planned to grow because of heavy rains this spring. The corn he did manage to plant is not looking great, either, he said.
But his Facebook posts about the USDA received some skepticism.
“To think the USDA deliberately is skewing numbers to make their boss look bad and that people appointed by the president allowed this to happen is delusional,” wrote user Zach Alger from Palmyra, Penn.