David Vincent, Director of Public Relations, Rooster Strategic Solutions
In the summer of 1892, a group of Midwestern farmers met to discuss the upcoming Presidential election. Calling themselves “The Farmer’s Alliance,” they formed in protest of perceived hostility from both the Republican and Democratic parties. Chief on their list of grievances was the tariff structure. Believing that the times demanded more than either party could offer, The Farmer’s Alliance mounted a third-party bid. It was one of the most successful efforts of this type in U.S. history, capturing three Governor’s chairs, five seats in the U.S. Senate and 10 in the U.S House, in addition to winning eight percent of the popular vote for President.
Some 130 years later, a new political movement, led by the descendants of these same Midwestern growers, is gathering steam in the Heartland. And, like their forebearers, these farmers today feel underserved by the present administration and also carry a long list of grievances – chief among them is President Trump’s trade policy and use of tariffs. Calling themselves Rural America 2020, this bipartisan coalition of farmers has established state offices in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. They have also launched ad campaigns across the Midwest and South focused on tariffs, ethanol policy, health care, and other hot-button agricultural issues. While they likely won’t match the success of the 1892 Alliance, their voices are being heard.
Sounding the trumpets. The Corn Belt has been a Republican bastion for decades, and the start of 2020 didn’t portend any promise of change. In January, on the heels of President Trump’s signature on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and believing that the end of the U.S/China trade was close at hand, 83 percent of farmers and ranchers approved of President Trump’s job performance in a poll conducted by Farm Journal. Fast-forward to August, and much of that support has eroded in the wake of a global pandemic, falling crop prices, and a trade war that doesn’t appear to have an end in sight. Farmers, led by Rural America 2020, are fighting back.
“Rural communities all across the nation are struggling under this administration,” said Christopher Gibbs, an Ohio soybean grower. Gibbs, once the local GOP chairman, now serves as chairman of the Rural America 2020 board. “I knew we were in trouble when the President said trade wars are good and easy to win. Lost trade opportunities, dwindling health care providers, rural hospital closures, below cost of production prices for commodities and livestock, collapse of the biofuel market, bankruptcies, and suicides have all plagued rural American well before COVID-19,” Gibbs explained in an interview with AgriMarketing. “The uncoordinated response of the Trump administration to the pandemic has upended traditional food supply chains and only made things worse for our dairy, livestock, and fresh produce farmers.”
Trading places. Like the revolt in 1892, trade and tariff policies were the catalysts for Gibbs and like-minded farmers to bolt from the Republican party and its standard-bearer, President Trump. “His war on trade – and that’s what it is, a war on trade – has not resulted in significant improvements for American agriculture that we couldn’t have achieved through allied cooperation,” Gibbs told swineweb.com. “Rather, it seems to be a manufactured crisis done for Donald Trump’s own personal political gain, to lift up his base without moving forward with a vision on long-term trade policy.”
With farm sales to China plummeting from $19.5 billion in 2017 to less than $9 billion a year later, and farm bankruptcies jumping more than 20 percent, the administration pushed through two agricultural bailouts totaling more than $51 billion. Alan Guebert, an award-winning agricultural journalist deemed the response “a whole carload of crazy.” Gibbs agrees: “The President has had four years to demonstrate his deal-making prowess, but instead we have a devastated farm economy that’s dependent on the treasury to keep net farm income afloat.”
Fueling anger. While the trade war dominates the headlines, biofuel policy has emerged as an equally large disappointment for many growers.
“In 2019, President Trump came to Council Bluffs and promised farmers that we’d be seeing increased demand for ethanol through year-round E15,” said Doug Thompson, an Iowa farmer and member of the Rural America 2020 steering committee. “But that promise amounted to nothing since the President quadrupled the number of exemptions for big oil companies so they could get out of ethanol requirements.”
According to Thompson and Rural America 2020, these exemptions – including 31 different waivers to refineries removing the requirement to blend biofuels like ethanol into their gasoline – mean that less than 1 percent of filling stations actually carry E15 today, despite the President’s promise to the Council Bluffs audience of farmers that E15 sales would “double this year.” The organization has responded by putting up physical billboards on highways in five states, as well as digital billboards and videos on the web aimed at American farmers, calling out “Trump’s Broken Ethanol Promise,” and challenging growers to visit local filling stations and ask the President “Where’s the E15?”
A beacon of change. According to Rural America 2020, the President’s deficiencies can be seen in both the major areas of trade and biofuel policy as well as a long list of personal slights that are equally offensive, if not as economically damaging. For example, the group points to the President’s threat to reduce or eliminate funding to the U.S. Postal Service, which would harm rural areas.
By shining the light on these and other grievances, farmers like Gibbs, Thompson, and the thousands of men and women who have joined them in this grassroots coalition are simply upholding a tradition of agricultural protest that dates back generations.
To learn more about the coalition, its aims, and its advertising efforts, visit https://ruralamerica2020.org