Anti-GMO activists and consumer groups wrestled the farm lobby to a tie last summer and forced them to accept mandatory disclosure of GMO ingredients in food – reversing two decades of federal policy – in exchange for preemption of state GMO label laws, including one that took effect in Vermont on July 1. “Ultimately, it was a compromise. Most people on both sides would say it’s an ugly compromise,” says president Roger Johnson of the National Farmers Union.
The GMO compromise raised the question of whether ag was losing power in Washington. Only a year earlier, a federal ban of state GMO label laws looked like a slam-dunk for farm groups and food processors. Agriculture lost three state-level votes November 8: 1) A right-to-farm constitutional amendment in Oklahoma, 2) Livestock welfare rules in Massachusetts, 3) The governor’s race in Missouri, where leading farm groups backed Chris Koster, the attorney general who contested the Midwestern impact of a California law on egg imports.
None of it matters as president-elect Donald Trump prepares for inauguration on January 20. Rural America voted 2-to-1 for the Republican businessman, who promised to protect the Renewable Fuels Standard, provide tax relief to farmers, and eliminate burdensome regulations such as the Waters of the United States rule. The rural vote was key to Trump’s victory. Democrat Hillary Clinton drubbed him 3-2 in cities and barely lost to Trump in the suburbs, the heart of the U.S. population.
“One might say agriculture has more clout than before,” says NFU’s Johnson. “I think they elected him.”
In a survey by Purdue University ahead of the general election, four fifths of farmers said they expected bad times financially in the 12 months ahead.
The largest U.S. farm group, the Farm Bureau, took the same view. “Rural America clearly made a difference in this election,” says Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall. “Now it’s time for our newly elected leaders to turn up for rural America and keep their campaign promises by addressing the issues that matter to people who sent them to Washington.”
Even in the early, heady days of the transition, it was clear that farm groups and the Trump camp differ on trade and immigration policy as much as they agree on tax and regulatory reform.
Trump opposed the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement as a candidate, said he would renegotiate NAFTA, and threatened 45% tariffs on Chinese-made imports – steps that would affect four of the top five markets for U.S. ag exports: China, Canada, Mexico, and Japan.
The rhetoric softened somewhat when the transition began. “Too many American jobs have been lost over the last decade because of trade deals that do not put Americans first. The new administration will make it more desirable for companies to stay, create jobs here, pay taxes here, and rebuild our economy,” said the Trump team.
Of every $1 in net farm income, 20¢ is generated by ag exports. “It is impossible to overstate the importance of trade,” says Ron Moore, president of the American Soybean Association. Half of U.S. soybeans are exported, with China as the top buyer; Mexico is number 2. Roughly 40% of the U.S. wheat crop and 14% of the corn harvest go to foreign markets. U.S. farm groups generally supported TPP as a lever for wider access to Japan’s food market. “He’s going to have to have some solutions for that,” says Duvall, referring to the promise to renegotiate NAFTA. “How are you going to protect agriculture when you do that?”
In his first visit to Capitol Hill as president-elect, Trump said immigration will be one of his three priorities on taking office. His team outlined 10 points for action, including a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, enforcement of all immigration laws, and reforming the immigration system “to serve the best interests of America and its workers.”
Half or more of U.S. farmworkers are believed to be undocumented. “We are going to enforce the law,” said Sam Clovis, cochair of the Trump campaign, during the election’s final weeks. In words aimed to reassure farmers and ranchers, Clovis said, “People will have to be legal to work in this country, but we will work with them to create a temporary worker program … We’re not going to do anything that will cripple any industry.” Clovis’ role in the new administration was not immediately clear. Trump’s transition team includes immigration hard-liners.
“There’s a lot more uncertainty” than usual for an incoming administration, says Johnson. “We know a fair amount of what he (Trump) is against and less what he’s for.” Trump said little about farm policy and particularly about the looming issue in farm country – the new farm bill that’s scheduled for 2018.
Ordinarily, lawmakers would begin work on a farm bill by gathering grassroots input this year in order to draft a bill next winter. There is pressure to move quicker because of the sustained downturn in commodity prices and farm income.
A Purdue University survey taken before November 8 shows 80% of farmers expect bad financial times in the 12 months ahead.
“I think we need to do a 2017 farm bill instead of 2018,” says Charles Grassley (R-IA), a Senate Agriculture Committee member. The top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson (MN), has also suggested early action. Congress traditionally takes the lead in writing a farm bill with the White House in an advisory role.
“I suspect there will be an attempt to pass, or at least discuss, farm legislation in 2017. It may be difficult to come to an agreement on a particular bill, even if there were agreement that there are problems that shouldn’t wait,” says Pat Westhoff of think tank FAPRI. Grain farmers unhappy with county-to-county variations in payment rates under ARC may look for a chance to switch to PLC. Cotton growers and dairy farmers want wholesale change in their supports. Those revisions could easily drive up farm program costs at a time of emphasis on reducing the size of the government.