Trump trade proposals show competing interests among rural supporters

March 9, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

A grain elevator in Cozad, Nebraska spells out the name of the town and represents the largest industry in the area, agriculture. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

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Rural voters overwhelmingly chose Donald Trump in the presidential election. But when it comes to the central campaign promise to get tough on trade, rural voters are not necessarily in sync with the administration.

Dawson County, Nebraska could be called Trump country. As in most of rural America, Donald Trump won a big majority here, 70 percent of the vote. But it’s also a good place to look at one issue where rural residents have different perspectives: trade.

Don Batie farms in Dawson County where the flat, fertile Platte River valley meets the tall, rolling Sandhills. On a bright afternoon he fires up a dusty Freightliner truck hitched to a flatbed trailer to pick up a load of hay bales. We rattle down a gravel road that traces his family’s history in the area.

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Farmer Don Batie raises corn, soybeans and alfalfa near Lexington, Nebraska on a farm homesteaded by his great-grandparents. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

Batie piles a flatbed trailer with round bales of hay. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

“My great-grandparents came here 144 years ago from England and homesteaded a mile south of where we are now,” Batie said.

Batie is 58 years-old but says that makes him one of the younger farmers around. He and his wife farm about 1,500 acres of mostly corn and soybeans. They’re raising more grain than ever before, but it’s not paying off right now.

“We’ll probably end up losing money for the year,” Batie said. “Unfortunately that’s kind of the way agriculture goes, we have boom and bust.”

Batie supports President Donald Trump, even though he knows Trump’s trade proposals could spell more trouble for the struggling farm economy.

What his business needs, Batie says, is higher commodity prices. One way to accomplish that, is by growing trade to increase demand for American crops. Batie says Trump’s rhetoric about shaking up longtime trade relationships like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico could work against that.

“That is one of the concerns that I and many of my fellow farmers have with the Trump administration is what he’s been saying on trade,” Batie said. “You know, he wants to renegotiate the NAFTA agreement. He vetoed, or cancelled, the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.”

Many voters saw the TPP as a path to outsourcing, but it would have made American farm exports cheaper in much of Asia and was supported by most farm industry groups. Now, Batie worries those countries will shop around with competing grain exporters in South America.

Then there’s President Trump’s campaign proposal to put big tariffs on Chinese imports. China bought $10.5 billion of soybeans from the U.S. in 2015. It is second among export markets for American farm products between Canada and Mexico.

That’s why, when farmers hears “tariffs,” they worry about a trade war.

“I am a free trader,” Batie said. “That means that I think we ought to be able to sell our goods to other countries. They ought to be able to sell their goods to us.”

But others in Dawson County like where President Trump is going with trade and hope his tough stance with trading partners can protect blue-collar jobs in the U.S.

On the edge of Cozad, a small city in Dawson County, is what’s left of the former Tenneco factory where Junior Dishman worked for 40 years. The plant made shock absorbers, mostly for car companies.

Junior Dishman stands at the site of the Tenneco shock absorber factory where he worked for 40 years. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

The site that was once the Tenneco factory is now piles of rubble. Once the debris is cleared, residents hope a new company will rebuild on the location. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

“A lot of them went straight to Ford Motor Company,” Dishman said. “We made shocks for Hummers, tanks. We used to make them for skyscraper windows.”

Now the factory building is demolished. A salvage company is combing through piles of bricks and insulation to pull out scraps of steel and copper. Dishman looks out from under his black cowboy hat and points to a landmark in the rubble.

“There’s a pile over there. I think my desk is still there with the keys still laying on the desk,” Dishman said. “They just knocked it down on top of it.”

Like farmer Don Batie, Junior Dishman voted for Donald Trump. But while Batie worries import tariffs could cause trade retaliation, Dishman thinks they could even the score between American workers and cheap labor overseas.

“If they do start charging China tariffs for bringing their product back in, the cost will offset and they can get jobs back in here,” Dishman said.

Dishman knows farming is the biggest industry around Cozad, but Tenneco was the town’s biggest single employer. At one time, he says 750 people worked there in a town of around 4,000. When it closed, he says many young families followed jobs out of town while older workers with deeper roots stayed.

“But they had to take a hit to wages and insurance,” Dishman said. “It affected the town quite a bit. It was like a lifeline here. It was a heartbeat, I think.”

He doesn’t want to see farmers suffer, but many more small towns have still have factories of their own and he wants to see them stay open. That’s what makes trade policy difficult in an area like Dawson County, because it involves trade-offs that cut different ways through rural America.

This story is part of the special series United And Divided, which explores the links and rifts between rural and urban America.


Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.