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Farmers gave Trump their votes and are looking for a return

This Dec. 17, 2016 photo shows a Donald Trump campaign sign along a highway near Los Banos, Farmers are looking for a sign from President Donald Trump that their issues mean as much to him as their votes do.
This Dec. 17, 2016 photo shows a Donald Trump campaign sign along a highway near Los Banos, Farmers are looking for a sign from President Donald Trump that their issues mean as much to him as their votes do. AP Photo

Farmers are looking for a sign from President Donald Trump that their issues mean as much to him as their votes do.

Trump is scheduled to speak at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual conference Monday in Nashville, the first sitting president to address the group in 26 years. He’ll be getting a warm welcome, even though there are policies his administration is pursuing that run counter to some farm interests.

“It doesn’t get any better than to have the president recognize the importance of farmers and ranchers to the rural economy,” said Kalena Bruce, a 32-year-old rancher from Cedar County, Mo., where Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a 5-to-1 margin in the 2016 presidential election. “Rural America still supports President Trump.”

As he approaches his first anniversary in office, the president is struggling to fulfill his campaign promises to segments of his voting base, including farmers, and his approval ratings have been stuck at historically low levels.

Several of his policy stances – from threatened withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement, to immigration restrictions that could choke the flow of migrants to harvest U.S. crops, to cutting crop-insurance payments popular in agriculture – run contrary to the positions represented by Farm Bureau, the biggest U.S. farmer organization.

Still, Trump’s ties to rural voters are far from broken despite some strains, said Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb. An event that brings together individual farmers and representatives of major agribusinesses gives him a venue to shore up support.

“A lot of farm interests have felt overlooked or ignored in the first year of the Trump administration,” he said. “Farm Bureau is the place where you can get the most people in one place and rally the troops.”

The White House declined to preview the president’s address.

The Farm Bureau has a far reach, with offices in 2,795 of the nation’s 3,144 counties. It’s long been recognized as the top farmer group in Washington, where agribusiness is listed as the 10th-biggest industry in campaign contributions, just behind energy, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. The Farm Bureau spent more than $3 million on lobbying in 2017, second only to Monsanto Co. among organizations that serve farmers.

It’s also long been associated with conservative politics, holding more influence in Republican administrations. Farmers, though, are also swing voters, especially in states such as North Dakota and Indiana, where incumbent Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly are up for re-election in 2018. Trump won both states by wide margins.

While other parts of the U.S. economy are going strong, farmer finances have struggled since the end of a commodities boom in 2013. Profits in 2017 are estimated at less than half the record levels of four years earlier.

Farming is one of the few sectors of the U.S. economy with a trade surplus, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has touted the benefits of the NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico, even as Trump has threatened to scrap the deal. The sluggish economy and at-odds position on trade and other issues, such as immigration, that many farmers see as necessary for their harvests, means farmer support for Trump can’t be taken for granted, said former Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican who served as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

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