Farmers’ discontent over President Donald Trump’s escalating trade war with China erupted into the open Wednesday as his agriculture secretary was confronted at a fair in rural Minnesota.
Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, drew applause as he leveled criticism of the administration’s trade policy at a forum with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in front of thousands of farmers gathered in a metal barn for a panel discussion.
American farmers took a fresh financial hit from Trump’s trade war over the weekend as China announced a halt to all U.S. agricultural imports after the president threatened Beijing with another tariff increase.
Wertish criticized Trump’s “go-it-alone approach” and the trade dispute’s “devastating damage not only to rural communities.” He expressed fears Trump’s $28 billion in trade aid will undermine public support for federal farm subsidies, saying the assistance is already being pilloried “as a welfare program, as bailouts.”
Others joined in. Brian Thalmann, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, complained about Trump statements that farmers are doing “great” again. “We are not starting to do great again,” he said. “We are starting to go down very quickly.”
Joel Schreurs of the American Soybean Association warned American producers are in danger of long-term losses in market share in China, the world’s largest importer of soybeans.
Perdue sought to soothe the crowd as he defended the president’s policies. “Obviously this is a popular opinion. A lot of applause,” he joked after the audience reacted to Democratic Representative Angie Craig saying aid is not substitute for a strategy on trade. “There is a lot of stress out there.”
He offered assurances that American farmers would gain their market share in China back but said any resolution to the conflict had to be based on “reciprocal trade.”
“If your solution is to forget about what China has done and sell and trade with them anyway with cheating, then I just fundamentally disagree with you,” Perdue said.
Perdue told reporters afterward that ”the ball is in China’s court” on the trade dispute and no additional trade assistance is currently planned for farmers beyond what the administration has already announced.
Trump hinted on Tuesday his administration may provide more money for farmers.
“As they have learned in the last two years, our great American Farmers know that China will not be able to hurt them in that their President has stood with them and done what no other president would do,” Trump said in a tweet. “And I’ll do it again next year if necessary!”
The trade war has hit farmers already beset by years of low commodity prices due to global overproduction and this year a string of bad weather. U.S. farm income dropped 16% last year to $63 billion, about half the level it was as recently as 2013.
U.S. Agricultural exports to China dropped by more than half in 2018 after the trade war began, falling from $19.5 billion in 2017 to $9.2 billion in 2018.
Major farm groups sounded an alarm earlier this week after China announced it was halting U.S. agriculture imports.
Zippy Duvall, president of the the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest and most influential general farm organization, on Monday called the import cut-off “a body blow to thousands of farmers and ranchers who are already struggling to get by.”
Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, the nation’s second-largest general farm group, said Trump’s “strategy of constant escalation and antagonism” has “just made things worse.”
Trump’s overwhelming support in rural America was crucial to his narrow 2016 election victory and maintaining farmer’s backing is critical to his re-election bid.
In June, 54% of rural voters approved of Trump’s job performance compared with a national approval rating of 42%, according to a Gallup survey of 701 self-identified rural voters.
Correction, Aug. 8
The original version of this story misstated in the headline where Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was confronted. It was in Minnesota, not Wisconsin.