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INSIGHTS: Trump sows seeds of doubt in Colorado farm country

April 14, 2018 Updated: April 14, 2018 at 11:24 pm
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Vineyards in Palisade, a center for fruit growing. (Mark Harden, Colorado Politics)

If you want to make some noise, you stick the pig that squeals loudest. That's what you need to know about the Chinese tariffs on 128 U.S. agricultural products and what it could mean for President Donald Trump.

Coloradans in the business of livestock and crops want Trump to be the deal-maker they elected him to be, without making them the loser.

Trump is rolling out a broad range of tariffs against China goods for what he's called unfair trade practices that have hurt the American economy. He's raising the taxes on Chinese imports of aluminum and steel, aerospace goods and other technology.

The Chinese logically could have countered by jacking up their import taxes on cars, airplanes, coal or, heck, even recycled aluminum. They are all valuable American exports.

The Chinese, instead, targeted their retaliation on certain farm and ranch products, including pork, nuts, wine and ethanol.

That wasn't an accident. The route to the American hearts and minds is through the bread basket. And rural American voters are Trump's people, at least at the polls.

The Washington Post noted last year that Trump lost urban voters to Hillary Clinton "in a landslide" in 2016. He squeaked by among suburban voters.

But in the vast rural stretches of America, in 2,332 counties deemed small-town and rural America, he crushed Clinton, taking more than 60 percent of the votes to her 34.

So you can't blame country folks growing livestock and crops for feeling shafted as they become a bargaining chip between Trump and his global economic nemesis.

Farmers and ranchers liked the idea of a having a president who has a mind for business, but now they're not sure what he's thinking.

Bruce Talbott, who runs the family-owned Talbott Mountain Gold orchards in the western Colorado fruit-growing town of Palisade, voted for Trump, and he thinks Democrats are socialists.

So far, however, the administration has made it harder for him to find migrant workers. Now Trump is threatening international markets that provide income that puts food on the table of American farmers.

"I think what's going on is he's posturing, but I'm not sure what he's posturing for," said Talbott, a grower, shipper, packer and processor of peaches, apples, pears, wine grapes, cider and dried peaches.

"There's something going on that's not obvious."

On the surface, only about 6 percent of Colorado's farm and ranch exports go to China - mostly beef, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

But folks here still have good reason to worry about the U.S. commodity market and the impact to the larger economy.

When China announced its plans to retaliate against the Trump tariffs on March 22, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 724 points, almost 3 percent.

Further, other countries in trade disagreements with Trump might follow suit and target meat, produce, grain, or other farm and ranch products.

Could Trump lose rural voters and hurt the Republican brand over trade negotiations?

"It's certainly a risk," Don Shawcroft, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, told me. "I try to be optimistic that the man understands politics and who voted for him."

Farmers also are dismayed that Republicans haven't yet passed a new farm bill, with the chance they could lose a lot of legislative clout if November's election turns into a wave year for Democrats.

"I wish there was something else we could tell President Trump to help him understand this," Shawcroft said of the nervous outlook he's hearing from farmers and ranchers over a possible trade war.

They have always been an odd couple, rural voters and Trump. Farmers live by the sweat of their brow and the bounty of the land. The only thing the billionaire ever dug was the New York nightlife.

Like most long marriages, the relationship between Republicans and the ag industry is complicated as well. But Democrats divorced themselves from farmers decades ago.

I met with Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Denver, at Club 20's spring meeting in Grand Junction March 30-31 to talk about tariffs and voters. He had been on a Western Slope listening tour, hearing from farmers and ranchers nervous about a trade war.

"People are really worried about this," he started out saying in a hotel hallway.

Bennet has taken up the fight. Last month he challenged Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Trump's trade before the Senate Finance Committee.

He pointed out to Mnuchin that the Trump administration had recommended $260 billion in cuts in the next federal farm bill, on top of a 15 percent reduction in discretionary spending by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Bennet told the Cabinet member, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker and hedge-fund operator, that Colorado farmers and ranchers "are fighting hard every day to keep their operations moving."

He pressed Mnuchin to say how the cuts could possibly help farmers.

"There were difficult decisions made in the budget, and obviously, as it relates to farmers, this is something that would have an impact," Mnuchin eventually replied.

In Grand Junction, Bennet was under no illusion about the problems Democrats face with voters across rural America. He said the party has to do a better job of reaching out to those voters and selling programs such as renewable energy.

But Trump is making that pitch easier for Democrats, if a trade war and global markets crush his vital constituency. They voted for him because he promised trade agreements that would help them, not hurt them, and that'll be a big turnip for them to swallow in just two years, when he's up for re-election.

"People will see if he delivered or if it was bluster," Bennet said.

"So far, they haven't delivered. So far, they've provoked a lot of anxiety in our agricultural sector."

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