Iowa Farmers Stick With Trump Despite Trade War

Judges evaluate ears of corn during the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa. The U.S.-China trade dispute is weighing especially hard on rural America. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News

DES MOINES, Iowa—As President Trump maps out his re-election bid, farmers in this battleground state are backing him even with the U.S. Farm Belt bracing for deeper pain from his trade fight with China.

In and around the livestock barns, agriculture building and an antique-tractor collection at the Iowa State Fair in recent days, farmers almost universally expressed support for the president and pledged to vote for him in 2020.

“He’s doing a good job and trying to make sure we’re treated fairly,” said Kevin Prevo, a fifth-generation farmer who raises corn, soybeans, cattle and hogs on about 1,400 acres near Bloomfield, Iowa.

Mr. Prevo showed zero uncertainty when asked whether he would vote for Mr. Trump again in 2020. “You bet,” he said.

The battle between the world’s two biggest economies is weighing especially hard on rural America after China said earlier this month that it would suspend all imports of U.S. agricultural goods. The U.S. on Tuesday said it would delay tariffs on some Chinese consumer goods, and Mr. Trump expressed hope that China would commit to some agriculture purchases from America, but it was unclear whether any such pledge was forthcoming.

In the wake of agricultural consolidation in recent decades, farmers aren’t nearly as large a group as they once were. But in heavily rural states like Iowa, which Mr. Trump won by almost 10 percentage points in 2016, they could still be an important voting bloc in 2020.

Before Mr. Trump and the eventual Democratic nominee compete for Iowa—one of the top corn, soybean and pork producers in the U.S.—the state will host the nation’s first nomination balloting in February. Democratic candidates have blanketed the state in recent days and many of their speeches at the fair have suggested Mr. Trump is severely damaging rural America.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., said in a brief fairgrounds interview Tuesday that Mr. Trump’s actions have hurt farmers in Iowa and elsewhere.

The Chinese technology company Huawei and agriculture are key issues in U.S.-China trade negotiations. Both may help President Trump achieve another goal at home. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

“There’s no evidence to me that this is part of an actual plan,” he said. “I think he just poked them in the eye to see what would happen, and what happened is they retaliated.”

That message, however, doesn’t seem to be landing with farmers, even as industry associations ratchet up statements expressing concern about the trade dispute. The Wall Street Journal interviewed more than a dozen farmers on the fairgrounds over two days.

“He’s doing the right thing,” said Leo Balk, a fifth-generation farmer who raises corn, soybeans, oats, beef and dairy cows on about 300 acres near New Hampton, Iowa. “It hurts, but his concept is absolutely right.”

One of the reasons farmers are showing so much patience with Mr. Trump, even as commodity prices have suffered, is because his administration has provided tariff-related aid to farmers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture this month started signing up farmers for a program that will disperse about $14.5 billion, following a roughly $10 billion program last year.

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Dan Taylor, who farms about 900 acres of corn, soybeans and livestock near Bouton, Iowa, called the checks the “Trump payment” and said last year’s assistance came close to making up for losses incurred as a result of the trade war.

Mr. Taylor was a rare farmer who said he didn’t vote for Mr. Trump and compared farmers backing the president with evangelical Christians who, as a whole, have also strongly supported him even though some of his actions may be counter to their beliefs.

“The ag sector is the same way,” Mr. Taylor said. “They’ll still give him their loyalty, even though the trade war isn’t doing ag any good.”

In 2016, Mr. Trump won 61% of the vote nationally in rural areas, exit polls show. In many rural counties, he outperformed 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney and that helped him win Iowa and other battlegrounds with large rural populations such as Wisconsin.

Former Iowa Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, an agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, said it shouldn’t be assumed that just because Mr. Trump enjoys the support of farmers that Democrats can’t reduce his vote margins in rural areas in 2020.

“The mistake that people make in this is to equate farmers and rural voters,” he said. “There are a lot more rural voters who are not farmers, than farmers.”

Mr. Vilsack said he is pleased Democratic candidates are spending more time in rural areas and offering detailed proposals. “The question for Democrats is how do we make the case for rural voters, and I think for the first time in a long time, maybe since Bill Clinton, we’ve got candidates talking about a specifically rural set of policy initiatives,” he said.

Some farmers, Mr. Vilsack said, are also starting to realize the trade situation wouldn’t be so dire if Mr. Trump had built a coalition and made it harder for the Chinese to target U.S. agriculture.

Adam Nechanicky, who farms soybeans, corn and cattle on about 750 acres in Buckingham, Iowa, said lower soybean prices could also be a symptom of other demand-side issues.

“You hear on the news all the time that he’s out trying to hurt the farmers. I don’t believe that,” said Mr. Nechanicky, a self-identified 2016 supporter of Mr. Trump. “A deal worth doing is not going to be easy. It’s going to take a little bit of pain to make it better.”

Still, some farmers off the fairgrounds said they see long-term damage from Mr. Trump’s actions.

“Farmers have had lower prices, and they have so much market uncertainty, and all these markets that we’ve built—worked and worked and worked to build up over the years—now those relations are, are at, you know, all time lows,” said Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union. “It’s going to take years for us to recover from how it was carried out.”

Write to John McCormick at mccormick.john@wsj.com

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