Few have been hit as hard by Donald Trump’s trade war with China than US farmers, with retaliatory tariffs from Beijing threatening their livelihoods. Now, with the midterms approaching, are Trump and the Republican party about to pay the price?
“I’ll die before we lose this farm,” says Nicole Issert as she fights back tears. “We have loans, we have to pay a lot of money every month. Dad has been freaking out.”
“I’ll have to make it to 100 to pay it off,” adds her 87-year-old father Leon with wry humour, sitting next to her at the kitchen table of their farmhouse in Peotone, Illinois.
The Issert family, whose main crops are corn and soybeans, have been farming in this same corner of the American midwest for more than a century across four generations, surviving the inevitable ups and downs of an industry dependent on the vagaries of the weather, varying crop yields and costly equipment repairs and replacements.
But like many others across the midwest, they now face a new and unexpected threat to their livelihood: a trade war with China initiated by President Trump that has seen the US impose tariffs on hundreds of Chinese goods, with Beijing responding in kind.
China’s retaliatory measures have sought to hit the US economy where it hurts most, targeting the American automobile and agricultural sectors, among others. One of the most sensitive areas of the American economy to feel Beijing’s wrath has been the soybean industry, with US exports of the crop to China – by far the biggest export market for US farmers – now subject to a 25 percent duty.
Counting the cost
“The day that China announced the tariffs, I immediately lost $80,000,” says Doug Schroeder from behind the wheel of his combine harvester at his farm near Mahomet, Illinois. It is the start of harvest season and Schroeder is among the thousands of the state’s farmers who have been up since sunrise. He and his small team are working hard to bring in their corn crop, which they grow along with soybeans on their 4,000 acres of farmland.
Perhaps nowhere is feeling the impact of Trump’s trade war with China more than Illinois.
The state is the US’s biggest soybean producer. Beyond the metropolis of Chicago, suburban sprawl quickly gives way to mile upon mile of farmland, traversed by dusty, empty roads and stretching for as far as the eye can see, dotted with farmhouses, grain silos and, in an unseasonably warm late September, combine harvesters crawling across fields of green soybean plants and golden corn rows.
“China was importing one in four soybeans from the state of Illinois,” says Schroeder, “but now it’s gone back to zero. So in one mandate we lost 25 percent of our business, just like that.”
‘It’s no fun being a loser’
On the campaign trail in 2016 Trump had vowed to defend the interests of American farmers, declaring that “family farms are the backbone of this country”.
Most took Trump at his word, with the Republican candidate receiving nearly 70 percent of the vote among farmers. Now, with demand for their crop plummeting and prices doing likewise, some are wondering if that faith was misplaced.
“I think it’s a sense of frustration rather than anger,” says Schroeder.
Schroeder voted for Trump in 2016 and still broadly supports him, but the tariffs issue has, if not changed his mind on Trump, at least raised questions.
“The trade imbalance with China was unfair and we have a president now who is willing to do something about it,” he says. “But the way he’s doing it is creating winners and losers and soybean farmers are probably the biggest losers in this trade war. It’s no fun being a loser.”
With the midterms approaching and the Republicans holding on to a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate and also battling to keep control of the House, if anger at Trump spills over into rural voters switching to Democratic candidates, it could spell disaster for the GOP.
Schroeder says he still has not decided how he will vote on November 6, but that the impact of the tariffs will certainly be on his mind when he does.
“I could use my vote to punish him (Trump) but I don’t know if I will,” he says. “There’s more time and things happen quickly here these days, things change in a tweet, literally.”
‘I don’t want a welfare check’
Trump has sought to ease the impact of China’s tariffs on farmers with a bailout package that will provide up to $12 billion of aid to the industry.
But while some are grateful for the help, few feel it will make up entirely for their losses, while among a community of proudly self-sufficient and independent business owners, accepting government handouts can leave a bitter taste.
“That’s great that the president wants to look out for us but I would rather not have a handout, I’d rather earn the money honestly. I don’t want a welfare check,” says Dave Kestel, a farmer in Will County, Illinois, who farms a mix of soybeans and corn working with his 22-year-old daughter Frankie.
Nicole and Leon Issert feel even more strongly about what they call Trump’s attempt to “pay us off”.
“He’s just trying to put a band-aid on it,” says Nicole. “I think it’s a joke.”
The Isserts, passionate Democrats, did not vote for Trump in 2016. For them, the tariffs have only served to reinforce what they already feared a Trump presidency would mean for them and the country.
“Ill-informed, self-indulged,” says Leon, summing up how he sees the man in the White House. “He really believes he knows everything but really he knows very little. It’s very upsetting.”
Making America great again
But while farmers may be united in their dislike of the tariffs, there is still significant divide over how much the president is to blame.
Some, like Ketsel, are sticking by the president despite the personal cost to them of the ongoing trade war.
“I voted for him and I think the guy’s doing a great job,” he says. “The tariffs are hitting me as a farmer hard but all he’s trying to do is level the playing field. Like he says, he’s making America great again.”
But whether Republican or Democrat, pro or anti-Trump, there is a will among farmers and others hit by the tariffs to take action and make their voices heard to protect their livelihoods.
Speaking at a round table event in the suburbs of Chicago, where a group of farmers, boat-builders, seafood exporters and myriad other business owners worried about the tariffs had gathered on a grey Tuesday morning, Farmers for Free Trade director Brian Kuehl was keen to stress the non-partisan nature of the campaign.
“We’re non-partisan, non-political. Our only dog in the fight is we want to see free trade and whoever is speaking up in support of free trade we’re going to be pushing and supporting them, whoever is hurting free trade we’re going to be speaking out about the impacts.”
Whether Republican or Democrat, that may be a message worth listening to for candidates hoping for victory at the ballot box in rural America this November 6.