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THOMPSONVILLE — It’s been a bumpy year for farmers. Record-setting rainfall early in the year set back early planting while President Donald Trump’s escalating trade war with China made for uncertain markets when a crop was harvested.

In 2016, Trump won over many in agriculture because of his talk on trade — he wanted to replace deals he saw as bad for U.S. interests and hold countries like China more accountable.

In doing so, however, many in the ag industry have felt a squeeze. Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr. said the past several years have been hard for local farmers. They’ve struggled to catch a break.

“This is probably the sixth and maybe going into the seventh year of tough economic times at the farm gate. And it’s really been difficult on the farmers,” said Guebert, who also farms soy, corn and wheat in Randolph County.

Trump’s 15-month trade standoff with China has hammered the bottom lines of Illinois soybean and hog farmers especially, Guebert said. Last week, as part of a temporary truce in the trade war between the two countries, the U.S. agreed to suspend a tariff hike on Chinese imports, and China agreed to purchase $50 billion in U.S. farm goods. While Guebert said that marks incremental positive momentum, the countries have yet to reach agreements on other major sticking points needed for a broader deal. “These are very, very small purchases compared to 2016 before this all began,” Guebert said.

For the most part, farmers wanted to see fairer trade deals, but they’re frustrated by how long it’s taking, he added.

“Compounded with the prices, the weather, the stress we’ve had with all the flooding and rain issues this past spring. This just weighs on farmers’ minds and their financial well-being that we need to get this resolved sooner rather than later so that we can get back to what we do best.”

Still, some farmers are trying to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

Leon McClerren farms in Thompsonville in Franklin County and voted for Trump in 2016, though with some modest reservation. He has spoken to The Southern in the past three years about what he has seen of Trump’s policy decisions on trade and ag issues.

McClerren spoke from the cab of his combine Wednesday where he was harvesting a 500- to 600-acre tract of soybeans. He expressed similar frustration, as he has in the past.

“I don’t really feel like there’s too many people in Washington trying to get something done for the American people,” he said.

In May, as he looked out over fields yet to be planted and watched the commodity markets drop, McClerren was frustrated.

“Are we holding the bag for all of this trade war,” McClerren asked at the time. 

“No … this isn’t what I voted for,” he said then.

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On Wednesday, he said his opinion had softened some, citing a qualm with Congress. He said as the president tries striking deals with Japan and China to bring in American goods, legislators have held up a deal that could help people like him.

“We’ve got one on the table that could be ratified (and) they choose not to ratify,” he said of the North American trade deal signed by Mexico, Canada and the U.S. last year. Its ratification is being held as Congress has yet to vote on it.

Larry Miller farms not far from McClerren and had mixed feelings on Trump’s trade policies. He said as the U.S. worked out its differences with China, matching tariffs for tariffs with the superpower, other countries got ahead of it in line in the world market. Countries like Brazil were then able to offload goods ahead of the U.S. and Miller said this could be of concern.

“I think he’s trying to do the right thing,” Miller said of Trump’s trade decisions. However, he said the damage done to the agricultural markets by the trade war will not be repaired quickly. “This is a long-term issue,” he said.

In 2016, Miller said he hoped Trump would act on behalf of rural Americans.

“I think he’s got to remember how he got elected, and I think he will,” he said.

Reflecting on that, Miller said all the issues with trade are certainly not worked out, but he felt like things were moving in the right direction.

McClerren pointed to the Market Facilitation Program that provided billions in subsidy to farmers impacted by the trade war with China.

“Well, he has for sure been the only president in my memory that has seemed to reach out to try to help the farmer when the farmer was used in a trade negotiation,” McClerren said. “You have to appreciate that.”

McClerren added that he’s not a fan of having to need them. But, he noticed that the Trump administration noticed people like him, he said.

Guebert said farmers have had reason for a few reserved celebrations lately, including the signing of a U.S.-Japan trade agreement. Another came in the form of an announcement earlier this month that the Trump administration planned to implement new rules to increase demand for ethanol. This followed complaints that the Environmental Protection Agency under his administration was giving Renewable Fuel Standards exemptions to oil refineries at a greater clip than any past administrations.

“If you look back at last year with the tariffs and the hoopla going on in the export community, the ethanol plants have really been a shining star for the American corn producer, delivering corn to those ethanol plants, and raising the price up to where it’s provided a benefit to American farmers, and Illinois farmers,” Guebert said. Almost 40% of the U.S. corn harvest goes to ethanol producers. But after more details were made public on Tuesday, the industry widely expressed disappointment, saying it didn’t go as far as they believe the Trump administration had promised to help buoy up the struggling ethanol industry.

When asked to look ahead to next year’s election, neither hesitated in their answers. Miller had an answer before the question was even finished.

“I’m voting for Trump,” he said, noting that his decision was rooted in more than just farming and trade deals.

McClerren hedged a bit more — he said never to ask him this year who he will vote for next year. But, he gave an answer based on how he felt in the moment.

“As of today, he would be my choice,” McClerren said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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isaac.smith@thesouthern.com

618-351-5823

On Twitter: @ismithreports

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