Leon McClerren

Leon McClerren on Friday shows empty fields on his farm in Thompsonville. He said wet weather has pushed back planting this year, which, coupled with the ratcheting up of trade tensions between the U.S. and China, has been causing farmers a lot of stress.

THOMPSONVILLE — Farmer Leon McClerren hesitantly cast a ballot for President Donald Trump in 2016. If elections were held this week, he said, he likely wouldn’t cast that same vote.

McClerren farms commodity crops in Franklin County, a part of Southern Illinois that made history by going red in the 2016 election. In several interviews with The Southern since the election, he has been cautiously optimistic about some of the president’s policies, but expressed concern regarding Trump’s trade ideas.

This hasn’t changed as rhetoric heats up between the U.S. and China regarding tariffs and trade deals. He said he likely isn’t the only farmer having a hard time with what he’s seeing on the news.

“I believe that farmers in general are very frustrated right now,” he said. As prices for grain fall and McClerren and others see their biggest customer impose retaliatory tariffs on American agricultural products, they are left asking a big question.

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

McClerren was honest about what he's been seeing.

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

According to an Associated Press report, soybean prices plunged early this week to a 10-year low after Trump's decision late last week to impose punitive duties on $200 billion of imports from China. China on Monday retaliated with tariff hikes on $60 billion of American goods.

In that same AP report, Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at the consultant RSM, is quoted saying that while more than agriculture is being hurt by tough trade talks, farmers are likely catching the brunt and the damage could be historic.

"Should the current policy pathway not be changed, the farm sector is going to experience the greatest downturn since the late 1980s, driven by widespread bankruptcies and consolidation," he said.

McClerren admitted that farmers weren’t the only ones that will be hurt by steep tariffs, but for the sake of making a point, he said farmers having a bad season can really hurt local economies.

“Farmers spend a lot of money,” McClerren said, and this goes beyond supplies for their businesses. It extends to grocery stores, restaurants and other shops in small towns.

In another AP report, a survey of Midwestern bankers shows declining confidence for the country's agricultural economy. The Rural Mainstreet survey for May, released Thursday, shows the survey's overall index dropping from 50 in April to 48.5 this month. According to the AP story, any score above 50 suggests a growing economy, while a score below 50 indicates a shrinking economy.

The survey, which included bankers in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, also saw its confidence index, which gauges expectations for the economy six months out, plummet from 50 to 38.2 — its lowest level in almost two years.

To help soften the blow, talk has again focused on a bailout of American farmers. Fellow Franklin County farmer and Trump voter Larry Miller said the last $11 billion bailout was helpful, but seeing these talks come back up is disheartening. He’d rather not need it.

“That frustrates me to some degree,” he said. “The marketplace is where I want to receive my income.”

Miller and McClerren have said before and reiterated this week that the president’s rhetoric is less than helpful.

“It’s kind of like your brother-in-law. He drives you nuts but he’s in the family but what do you do,” Miller said. He said a lot of the firebrand language Trump is known for is what has brought him success, so he doesn’t expect it to change.

McClerren said he wasn’t able to blame all of his industry’s woes on Trump’s trade negotiations — he said the volume of American farm production has a part to play in prices, too. He and Miller also said lawmakers have had a hand in it.

“We need Congress to do their work,” Miller said, pointing to a lack of movement from Congress on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal that has been waiting for debate since it was approved for ratification last year.

The view from Miller's and McClerren’s windows aren’t helping their anxiety. Both said they have not spent much time working their fields this spring. The ground has been too wet to get a crop in. Miller said some of this stress could be alleviated if farmers could be out working.

“If we could get in the field, this would help us tremendously,” Miller said.

McClerren said this is one of the only years he can recall not having a crop in the ground by mid-May. That’s a concern itself. However, it's just the weather. Despite it not being a man-made concern, Miller wasn’t convinced people wouldn’t try to blame Trump for the weather, too.

Miller said he knows sometimes things have to get hard before they get better. Unlike McClerren, Miller told The Southern that he would vote again for the president — he said he can’t see any “pro-agriculture policies coming from the left." But, in saying that, he did not want to minimize the hurt farmers are feeling.

“We need to develop markets and we need to maintain markets,” Miller said. But, he added that “sometimes to be at a good deal you’ve got to bite the bullet a little bit and wait for something to happen.”

McClerren said he knows that the rearview mirror is going to be the best way of judging the success of Trump’s dealing with China. But he said right now he’s asking a question: “Have we gained anything?”

While he was talking to The Southern, McClerren found a four-leaf clover. But, he’s not sure when he might see the luck come from it.

“This could take years is what we are hearing,” he said. In the meantime, he said, “we’ve got to find a way to adjust to it.” However, it’s not clear what that adjustment will look like.

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