In Rural Trump Country, Trade Policy Divides

Mar 15, 2017

Rural voters overwhelmingly chose President 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 easily be called Trump country. As in most of rural America, Donald Trump won a big majority there – 70 percent of the vote. But it’s also a good place to look at one issue where rural residents have different perspectives: trade.

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

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. Rattling down a gravel road, he traces his family’s history in the area.

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

Batie is 58 years old and 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 says. “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.

Don Batie piles a flatbed trailer with round bales of hay.
Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

What his business needs, Batie says, is higher commodity prices. One way to accomplish that is by growing international 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 says. “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.

Related: Kansas Senator Calls TPP Trade Deal Crucial--But It's Mired In Presidential Politics

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 says. “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.”

Others in Dawson County, however, like the direction of Trump policies and hope his tough stance with trading partners can protect blue-collar jobs in the U.S.

Junior Dishman stands at the site of the Tenneco shock absorber factory, where he worked for 40 years.
Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

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

“A lot of them went straight to Ford Motor Company,” Dishman says. “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 says. “They just knocked it down on top of it.”

Like farmer Don Batie, 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 says.

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 about 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 says. “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 the second part of the special series United And Divided, which explores the links and rifts between rural and urban America. Listen to Part 1 here.