As farmers across the country head into another winter of the Trump administration’s trade war with China, their support for him appears to be holding steady in what some researchers describe as short-term pain for long-term gain.

The trade war began in spring 2018 when the Trump administration began 25% tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese imports. China responded with its own $50 billion retaliatory tariffs on U.S. imports — the action that most directly impacts farmers.

Income Decreases as Aid Rises

Farms producing soybeans were hit particularly hard as Chinese demand suddenly dried up. According to an article in Successful Farming, a group of researchers at Iowa State University conducted a survey of 693 Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota corn and soybean farmers and found that more than 80% saw net farm income decline as a result of trade disruptions. 

In addition, about 30 percent of respondents reported their income dropped by more than 20 percent as a result of the trade war. This reduction comes on top of already record levels of farm debt. 

Much of those losses, however, have been offset by increased farm aid from the Trump administration designed to reduce the trade war’s negative effects. Some $28 billion in financial assistance has gone to corn and soybean farmers since the trade war began in 2018. 

The aid seems to be enough to hold farmers’ support for Trump heading into the 2020 election. According to a survey conducted by Farm Futures in August, 67 percent of growers said they would vote to re-elect Trump. This is up from 60 percent at the start of the trade war. 

Brad Nelson, who farms 1200 acres in southern Minnesota, summed up the sentiment in an interview during the Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour.

“I don’t like it, but I understand the need to get a better deal for the U.S.,” Nelson said. “The Chinese are always coming up with excuses not to import U.S. corn, DDGs, ethanol. When they do that to us, I understand the need to work on changes.”

Economic and Partisan Identities Clash

Even those who might disagree with the administration’s stance toward China still see Trump as a better alternative to any of the Democratic presidential candidates — particularly those who advocate for large-scale social programs like Medicare For All and free college tuition.

“I’m not in favor of everyone going to college for free, or getting health care for free,” said Roger Cerven, who farms 2200 acres in Iowa. “Someone has to pay the bill.”

Farmers also feel that the long-term economic gains they’ll see from the Trump administration will offset any short-term losses they see now. 

The Iowa State survey found that only 14 percent of farmers think their operations will be better off financially a year from now, but more than 50 percent ultimately expected the trade war’s results to be positive. In addition, more than 40 percent expect the U.S. economy overall will be stronger in three years.

One point of contention, however, has been the administration’s practice of allowing oil refiners to sidestep biofuel requirements, which is driving down demand for ethanol. On its own, farmers might be able to weather that decrease, but it’s too much for some to bear on top of decreased demand for corn from China.

It’s unclear how the trade war might end, or whether the administration can keep up federal aid for another growing season. Short of any drastic changes between now and next November, expect Trump’s support to stay where it is among the farming community — even as economic beliefs separate from political ones.

“These partisan identities are hardening,” Chris Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, told NPR. “So, you kind of have forces pushing in both ways. And it’s sort of this ongoing experiment to see which one breaks first.”


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