Trade war spooks the county fair

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

The Iowa Republican Party found farmers last weekend to praise President Trump, tariffs and a trade war as a painful but necessary move that will bring long-term success to the Tall Corn State. They brought in Bill Northey, now of the USDA, to put a smiling face on the grim situation as beans have taken a $2 beating of late. Loyal farmers said they understand.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, Tim Gannon was touring the county fair circuit the past couple weeks. Gannon is a Democrat from Mingo running for state secretary of agriculture against Republican appointee Mike Naig of Emmetsburg. Gannon stood out of the rain at the Jones County Fair, waiting for country artist Jason Aldean to perform in the mud, talking with farmers who had supported the Trump campaign.

“They want to see Trump succeed but they wonder if there’s a way out of this trade war,” Gannon said. “They fear the long-term impact to markets.”

That is, they think they can make it this year with the $12 billion emergency aid package with special programs for soy and pork producers. As one of the Republican farmers told Northey, the past six months haven’t been so bad but the next six months could be.

Gannon said the effects are already felt, compounding what has been an anemic ag economy the past five years. Soy prices worked their way up 30¢ over a week but then Trump threatened China again and the gain was lost in a day. Gannon’s dad owned a John Deere dealership at the height of the Farm Crisis. Gannon hears that many implement dealers can’t even sell a riding lawn mower. The big equipment they do sell is clean and used, he said.

That makes the white guys who voted for Trump in the John Deere plant at Waterloo nervous. Some of them remember being laid off for more than a year during the worst of times. They worry that their jobs could be shifted overseas or lost altogether, Gannon said after meeting with a have dozen line workers. They told him they are coming back to the Democratic ballot.

He also heard around Eagle Grove about how the new pork plants being built in Wright County and Sioux City were predicated on Chinese pork demand, which is now on hold. And, he said “there’s a lot of concern among commodity groups that have been at the forefront of opening new markets.”

Many farmers in their 60s who wonder whether they should gamble on a crop next spring are thinking right now about cashing in and renting out. And, yet others think that Trump knows precisely what he is doing and that this trade war was a long time in coming, by necessity. That is not the sort of free-trade talk we heard from the same people a few years ago.

A trade embargo on the Soviet Union was the beginning of the end for Jimmy Carter. For certain it was in Iowa.

The same trouble may be brewing in the mud at the Jones County Fair. Gannon has worked on campaigns since he was knee-high to his dad running against Bob Ray. He knows the party registration numbers in every legislative district that matters. He was an aide to Tom Vilsack at USDA and knows what those commodity groups are thinking. He smells something among the farm crowd.

“They’re feeling the heat on trade, and saying ‘Make Farmers Great Again’ is personally insulting to me. I watched my dad in the Farm Crisis,” Gannon said, getting his Irish up a bit in what otherwise was a dispassionate observation about the political state of play.

Jones, Fayette and Kossuth counties are those purple places where elections are decided. “There’s a positive energy on the Democratic side. Some Republicans are seeing their money dry up. There is an enthusiasm gap, and I think it is there.”

Gannon has worked on losing campaigns. He can smell that, too. That is not what he is sensing right now.