CARBONDALE — Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s strong words for China and his ideas on trade left many inspired and others deeply fearful — and local farmers fell somewhere in between as the president took office last year.
“I can’t tell you that I think Donald Trump will be a great president, but he will be a different president,” Leon McClerren, Franklin County president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, said in December 2016.
BENTON — Franklin County agricultural leaders have reserved feelings about what their industry will look like after Jan. 20, 2017.
McClerren reluctantly punched a ballot for Trump in that year’s general election and has had a year to look at the work the president has done in his industry.
McClerren was concerned that with a hard-line approach to China, one of the United States' biggest importers, there could be a hard blowback for farmers. In the past year, he said his concerns about China didn’t pan out, but, in an interview this week, he said the exports haven’t been great.
“Our production has been up while we haven’t had as much overseas sales,” McClerren said. He said overall, the markets under Trump have gone about as he thought they would. “I think as far as our markets go, I have seen exactly of what I expected — a whole lot of nothing.”
McClerren said this is a multifaceted issue, and trade was a big part of it.
“I think we are still up in the air. I think (the North American Free Trade Agreement) being renegotiated and possibly being let go, that’s a concern for farmers, of course,” McClerren said
Trump recently addressed that issue. Speaking at the American Farm Bureau Federation's convention Jan. 8 in Nashville, Tennessee, Trump addressed the deal, saying he was working with farmers in mind while negotiating.
“We are going to make it fair for you people again,” Trump said to the room full of farmers and ag industry leaders.
Addressing the robust Wall Street, McClerren said it is often the case in the U.S. that when the rest of economy is robust, agriculture tends to “sputter a little.”
Kenton Thomas, District 18 director for the Illinois Farm Bureau representing Gallatin, Jackson, Johnson, Massac, Pope-Hardin, Pulaski-Alexander, Saline, Union and Williamson counties, also pointed to a slightly slower agricultural market. However, he said even though his industry may be lagging, a robust national economy is good for him, too.
“If the United States is doing better and rural America is doing better, then that has to be positive for me as a farmer,” Thomas said.
McClerren and Thomas both pointed to regulations as a positive with Trump’s presidency — there are a lot fewer rules to abide by.
Trump also remarked on his deregulation efforts with the Environmental Protection Agency, which he said was intruding on farmers and their very way of life with inspections and burdensome paperwork.
He said his administration is in the process of eliminating “the terrible Waters of the U.S. rule,” which farmers like McClerren said wreaked havoc on farmers by over-regulating every bit of water on their land from drainage ditches to watering ponds. He was happy to hear that this might be coming to an end.
Generally, the rollback of regulations has pleased McClerren. He said farmers themselves know already to care for the land — it’s their livelihood. He said having someone stand over his shoulder telling him how to do what he already knows just gets in the way of work.
“Sometimes we don’t need the extra form to fill out,” he said.
Thomas agreed about deregulation and was also enthusiastic for Trump’s actions to roll back regulations or even halt some of their enforcement.
“It’s a much better environment for agriculture now than it was before he took office, no doubt,” Thomas said, saying deregulation was key.
McClerren was at the Nashville meeting, as was Thomas, and heard the president speak. He said he was generally impressed with Trump’s enthusiasm for farming and for hearing him address the issues.
“He believes agriculture is a prominent part of our society,” McClerren said. “It was a lot better than a tweet.”
One bright spot for many farmers in Trump’s address was a promising note about the ever-delayed farm bill — a political football that contains not just support for farmers but also supplemental nutrition assistance programs.
“I’m looking forward to working with congress to pass a farm bill on time,” the president said, adding that he supports a bill “that includes crop insurance,” a controversial safety net for farmers in bad years. However, no details were laid out for what type of plan he would propose for insurance within the bill.
McClerren said this was good to hear, but wasn’t convinced.
“We will see,” he said. “He’s only one of the parts that has to come together on this.”
The one thing Trump’s presidency has revealed in full to McClerren is the deep divide in the country and in congress.
Trump inadvertently touched on this during his talk in Nashville, too. He delivered a heavily partisan message, stating that every Democrat in congress voted against tax cuts while Republicans unanimously voted for them.
“If the Democrats ever had the chance, the first thing they would do is get rid of it and raise up your taxes, sometimes by 40, 50, 60 percent higher than what you are paying right now,” Trump told the crowd.
“We need more statesmen and less politicians,” McClerren said of the deep trench dividing those on the left and on the right. He said the president should rule by bringing people together as opposed to ruling with “an iron fist.”
Like his comments last year, McClerren said Trump needs to focus on boosting his sector of the economy in his next three years in office.
Thomas said though it is a bit early by his estimation to be able to tell what kind of real impact Trump has had and will have on agriculture, he is hopeful for the next three years based on what he has seen so far.
“If we can get the changes and keep going like we have the first year, I can’t see agriculture being hurt by it,” Thomas said.
McClerren also had ideas for the future.
“What I would like so see from this president is a focus on trade, a focus on profitability on farms,” McClerren said. “I think anybody would want that for their business.”