Iowa farmers still support Trump amidst changes

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Monticello, Iowa (CNN)Like most Iowa farmers, Kate Edwards loves the rhythm of the seasons: planting in the spring, harvesting in the fall, planning it all over again each winter.

But thanks to an ongoing trade war and a partial government shutdown, Edwards and her farming neighbors are stuck. Instead of planning, this winter has become a season of worry.

“If it was any other time of year, we’d be too busy in the field to care,” she says as snow covers her vegetable farm north of Iowa City. “But as a farmer, it’s kind of the worst time of year for the government to be shut down.”

A shuttered Department of Agriculture has made it much harder to apply for loans, receive subsidy checks or analyze the vital crop and market reports that help farmers strategize their next harvest. Decisions made today could mean the difference between solvency and survival.

On Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue ordered more than 9,700 federal employees back to work to reopen Farm Service Agency offices to help farmers and ranchers, even though those workers won’t be paid until the shutdown is over. But not all loans and programs will be in effect, a news release said.

“This is the time of the year when we need to figure out new equipment for the year, buying land or putting up new buildings,” Edwards says. “I think we’re frustrated right now but it’s also a time to look to our neighbors to build resiliency.”

An hour away, Dave Walton crosses his freezing barnyard and shrugs when asked about any plans to invest in his sprawling corn and soybean operation. “That’s an easy one, we don’t have any money so we’re not investing.”

President Donald Trump’s trade war with China sent soybean prices to 10-year lows just as new steel tariffs drove up the cost of equipment and devoured the year’s profits.

“As soon as the tariffs were put on steel, the cost of a new grain bin went up 15-25%,” he says, pointing toward a massive steel container of corn. “So things are already tight and if you’re thinking about buying a grain bin, you’re probably not going to do it now.”

Yet he refuses to criticize the policies of a President who flipped Iowa from blue to red with the help of farmers.

“I think there’s some growing uneasiness, but I think generally we’re just going to let things play out,” he says with stoic resolve.

With Trump in office another two years, he says, “We’re going to see where this takes us. And trade with China in particular, something needed to be addressed there. The intellectual property rights damage has been done — I’m not just talking about iPhones and iPads — they’re stealing seed genetics.”

To teach China a lesson, Walton says he is willing to suffer short-term pain in exchange for the long-term gain. “We can probably stand a couple of years of this at the most. We get into 2020, and it’ll start to get really difficult to stay in business.”

Trump is betting that the patience and patriotism that comes naturally in farm country will keep this part of his base on his side. And to hedge that bet, there is $12 billion in emergency subsidies. In an age of spiraling national debt, the money is all borrowed from China and the second round of checks is scheduled to go out to farmers when the government reopens.

Brian Wolken, a farmer as well as mayor of Monticello, checks soybean subsidies on his phone.

“Let’s see, Trump’s subsidy is a $1.65 per bushel,” Brian Wolken says, peering at his phone in the shadow of a grain bin full of beans. “And it’s all to keep the farmers happy because they voted for him.”

When he’s not growing corn and beans, Wolken is the mayor of Monticello, Iowa. He supported Bernie Sanders in the last presidential election cycle and marvels at his own father’s devotion to Trump despite his painful policies. “He hasn’t wavered at all. He’s still 100% behind Trump. I think more people will tell you they’re getting tired of his antics, the way he acts.

“But farmers are the kind of people who decide to shoulder the load without complaint. They figure if we can get a better shake from China and maybe open up new countries to export beans, it’s going to be better for us in the long run.”

But at Darrell’s Diner, where arguments between the dueling Tables of Knowledge get so heated that the old timers came up with a safe word (“rosebushes”), retired farmer Mel Manternach minces no words.

“It’s unbelievable that the farmers in Iowa can still support Trump when it’s costing them thousands every week. I can’t believe that they’re that blind,” he shakes his head and sips his coffee. “The die-hards are just dying harder.”

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