But let’s clarify: When we talk about “farmers” as a voting bloc, we’re talking largely about farm operators and management in contractor outfits. This isn’t a huge number – an Agri-Pulse poll that found Trump far in the lead among farmers restricted its survey to those who operate at least 200 acres, about 662,000 of whom are eligible to vote. In comparison, there are an estimated 2.2 million farm workers in the US, an estimated 53% of whom are undocumented and ineligible to vote.
While those outside the farming industry may have a bucolic idea of what it is to be a farmer – waking with the dawn, in tune with the cycles of the land, autonomy, independence – it’s actually intensely regulated by government agencies ranging from the USDA to the EPA to NOAA to the FDA, and almost by default, every American farmer is deeply involved with the government. It’s a difficult, red-tape infested life.
Trump swung the farmer vote to his side by shrewdly mentioning a few very specific, mostly niche items – the vast majority of the country has never even heard of the Waters of the United States Rule, for example – that speak directly to these difficulties. Let’s review.
Waters of the United States Rule
The Waters of the United States Rule is an attempt to fight water pollution at its source. Waterways – streams, rivers, underground springs, ponds, lakes – are often polluted, and that pollution comes in part from runoff from farms. Silt, fertilizer, and pesticides leach out of farmland and into water sources. A problem! Without a doubt.I t’s a fairly arcane bit of law, little-known outside the agricultural community. It was remarkably canny for Trump to specifically mention it. (Hillary Clinton did not.)
This rule is incredibly controversial among farmers; it’s seen as one more layer of land regulation in what can already seem like an overwhelming pile. It’s also very confusing – for example, a central complaint is the way the rule treats not-always-there waterways like prairie potholes the same as ponds or lakes.
The Waters of the United States Rule is a fairly arcane bit of law, little-known outside the agricultural community.
John Hansen, the president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, worked with the EPA and the American Farm Bureau – a hugely influential Republican-leaning nonprofit who flat-out opposes the rule – to try to create more sensible regulations. He says, however, that the Farm Bureau “took a more partisan approach, and the whole thing just fell apart. We were not able to achieve an acceptable path forward for legislation, so we continue to be in this perilous position which is not understood or appreciated by 99 percent of farmers. They’re just by god mad and they don’t want the EPA telling us what to do.”
Hansen acknowledges that the EPA has done a very poor job of communicating to farmers how this will actually affect them. Meanwhile, groups like the Farm Bureau say that “the impact on farmers and ranchers will be enormous.” They don’t detail how, instead leaning on the criticism that the rule is a federal “over-reach.” Combine this with fired-up rhetoric from Trump and many are thinking, well, this is another example of the government screwing with us, the farmers, and it needs to be thrown out.
“I fundamentally am opposed to the relaxing of environmental regulations, that doesn’t appeal to me at all,” says Casey McAuliffe, a fruit and vegetable farmer based near Galveston, Texas who also runs her local farmers market. She is vigorously opposed to Trump, but says, “I can see how some vague opposition would be attractive to some farmers.”
The estate tax resonates in the agriculture community in a similar way: farmers, much more than other industries, tend to pass down land and assets through generations and have long been concerned about the cost of taking over a parents’ farm. Memes passed around Facebook stated that Clinton’s proposal of a slight expansion of the estate tax would increase it to 65 percent and force farmers to give up family farms. To farmers, a multi-generational farm is a personal, emotional thing; this is their livelihood, their home, their identity. A threat to take it away is a dire thing.
Critics of the Estate Tax have been unable to actually find any farmer who has been forced to sell their farm.
Further, farmers are very concerned about the future. The value of farmland has increased dramatically in the past few decades; Hansen’s land, he says, was bought for $200 an acre, and comparable land nearby recently sold for $12,000 an acre. That increase can make a farmer’s worth, on paper, upwards of a million dollars, but of course most farmers do not have a million dollars. The fear, again stoked by entities like the Farm Bureau (which has called for the flat-out repeal of the estate tax), is that with increasing land values, farmers won’t be able to pay off the tax. That said!
A Washington Post investigation from 2015 found that the many exemptions for farmers essentially negate that tax: if land continues to be farmed, the value of the land can be legally decreased so much that taxes are basically nothing, for example. The USDA estimates that only 0.6 percent of farms would have to pay any estate tax, and in 2013, the Tax Policy Center (a nonpartisan group) estimated that only 120 farms had to pay anything. Additionally, that 65 percent rule would only apply to estates worth more than $1 billion – therefore not likely to affect family farms. Critics of the tax have been unable to actually find any farmer who has been forced to sell their farm for this reason.
“There’s no question that folks have gotten up in arms about this issue, says Hansen. “But my experience has been that when you sit down and talk with your members, it just hasn’t been…it’s a perceived problem, but when you get down to the nuts and bolts, is it actually there? Not really.”
The Renewable Fuel Standard
In that one Iowa speech, Trump pledged to protect the Renewable Fuel Standard of 2005, which mandates a certain amount of biofuel added to the fuel supply each year. And while this may sound like a very left-wing area of concern, remember that biofuel is largely produced by corn farmers, and Iowa is the country’s leading producer.
Biofuel is extremely divisive; many farmers rely on it, while others criticize its sustainability and actual impact on the environment and climate. But both sides are furious at the EPA thanks to a May 2015 announcement in which the EPA, after several missed deadlines, set a goal for biofuel production that was some 20 percent lower than was originally planned. “We are going to end the EPA intrusion into your family homes and your family farms,” read the speech.
The Affordable Care Act
Healthcare is in the same mold. The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, has attracted intense anger from farmers, largely because of the unusual way the industry works. Agriculture relies on farm contractors who work sort of like temp agencies: these contractors have many employees who are sent to various farms at various times of the year for various tasks.
Being forced to submit lists of employees for healthcare coverage would expose some of these contractors for employing illegal immigrants, which they have to use due to the massive lack of labor.
A central problem there is immigration: being forced to submit lists of employees for healthcare coverage would expose some of these contractors for employing illegal immigrants. Contractors have to use illegal immigrants due to the massive lack of labor in the agricultural industry and are now, they feel, being punished for an immigration policy they have no control over. (Check out this article for more on how the Trump presidency might affect immigrant farmworkers.) Contractors are also simply used to not paying for employee healthcare (it’s estimated that fewer than half of agricultural employers offer healthcare at all), and the increased costs can be a huge stress in an industry where margins are already razor-thin.
Some of the healthcare cost is due to some states’ refusals to extend Medicaid – what was to be a key component of the Affordable Care Act – including many breadbasket states like Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, and Missouri. This effectively kneecapped healthcare for agricultural workers. (On the flip side, there’s also the moral argument that workers in agriculture, one of the most dangerous industries in the country, simply deserve healthcare.)
Minimum Wage For Farm Workers
Clinton proposed a $15 minimum wage and overtime for farm workers, another increase Trump neglected to mention. Organizations like the New York Farm Bureau, associated with the larger Farm Bureau, oppose the minimum wage increase, claiming it would depress profits even further. The NYFB did not mention the $30 million set aside to help farmers pay for increased wages, again stoking fear for issues that aren’t really issues at all.
How Did This Work?
The common thread here is that all these issues can be portrayed as attempts by an intrusive government to regulate and ruin the lives of farmers.
There are many farmers, including Hansen, who work closely enough with lawmakers to see these bills for what they are: messy, yes, but not designed to hurt farmers, and with lots and lots of money and exemptions built right in to ensure that farmers aren’t unnecessarily hurt. Trump found these specific, fear-stoking issues that have been buzzing in farm communities and placed himself in their firm opposition.
Only Trump addressed farmer’s fears, promising gigantic slashes in laws as a solution.
The facts aren’t always there – the estate tax is a particularly egregious example of ignoring how laws actually work – but that doesn’t really matter. Even those opposed to Trump acknowledge that organizations like the EPA and USDA are awful at outreach. It is very easy for partisan groups to stir up fear – farmers hear that the Waters of the US Rule is going to prevent his cow from crossing a stream on his own property, or that the estate tax is going to tear apart their farm, and that’s the end of it. And nobody from the government – not the EPA, and not Hillary Clinton – did or is doing a good job of explaining the protections and striking down false fears.
This would not have been very difficult. A reduction in these regulations will not actually benefit farmers, in either the long- or the short-term. For example, the Waters of the United States Rule is designed to protect increasingly polluted fresh water sources; if that water is polluted, so soon will the land be. And while there is essentially no evidence that the estate tax hurts farmers, it does secure billions of dollars each year that indirectly flow back into agriculture by way of the many grants and exemptions given to farmers.
But nobody said that. The only candidate who addressed those fears was Trump, promising gigantic slashes in laws as a solution. Despite the proliferation of Snopes-style fact-checkers, nobody in the EPA, the USDA, or the Clinton campaign managed to figure out a way to address and reassure farmers that Trump’s bluster was only that.
“The fundamental issues that will decide whether folks can stay in business and get their loans renewed, neither candidate talked about those,” said Hansen. “But Trump did a really good job of pushing the hot-button issues and spreading fear of government over-reach and control. and to his credit, that worked.”