Farmers hope Trump hears concerns on trade, immigration

Jordan Buie

NASHVILLE — Brandon Whitt is an eighth-generation farmer and wants to make sure he is not the last one in his family.

Brandon Whitt is a hog and strawberry farmer in Middle Tennessee. “Profitability is always my main concern," he said. “It's what keeps me up at night.”

A hog and strawberry farmer on 2,600 acres of rolling hills in Middle Tennessee, he has worked hard to diversify the crops the farm produces and the clients it serves.

The family has even opened a farm store with the goal of giving the community “a front porch to local agriculture.”

“Profitability is always my main concern," he said. “It's what keeps me up at night.”

But changes in trade and immigration policy could threaten farmers across the nation like Whitt. 

Lake Elliott carries buckets of grain to feed the heifers Jan. 2, 2018, in Robertson County.

More than pestilence, dying livestock or rotting crops, trade and immigration reform are front of mind for many American farmers, who have seen profit margins dwindle in recent decades.

As President Trump stopped in Nashville on Monday to speak before the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual conference, that's the message the nation's farmers wanted him to hear. 

“People have to understand that for us to do this we have to make a profit, and the price of corn is the same as what it was in 1976,” said Whitt, whose farm is about 30 miles southeast of Nashville. “Trade is huge. It gives us a place to go with our products."

Will Roger, a policy expert for the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest farm organization, said the farmers who remain in business have done so because they’ve adjusted to changes that have reshaped the industry.

Technological advancements in nearly every aspect of the industry have allowed fewer farmers to work more land and harvest more crops, but these large bounties and economies of scale have pushed out small operations and at times flooded the market.

“While farming on average is profitable, that’s just on average and farms across the country are shutting down,” he said. “Realistically, we are in our third year of declining revenues and we’re headed toward our fourth.”

About 70 miles away from Whitt's farm in Adams, Tenn., embracing the future has been the very bread and butter of the Robert Elliott and Sons Angus cattle farm, where the family started breeding cattle in 1935.

Tanks with liquid nitrogen hold cryogenically frozen semen from nationally pedigreed bulls. Fourth-generation farmer Lake Elliott, the farm’s current manager, uses devices to moderate the fertility cycles of his cows.

He can bring as many as 90 cows into estrus in a single day for breeding.

All of this is done to keep his family's overhead as low as possible to squeeze out a profit.

“You have to look at growth, not only your growth but the growth around you, and ask, ‘How can I become more efficient?' ” Elliott said. "It's necessary to survival in today's business climate."

Lake Elliott drives past cows Jan. 2, 2018, in Robertson County, Tenn.

Farms and the immigration debate

But many say the problem isn’t farm productivity, but finding workers to harvest crops and a market to buy them.

Elliott said his family uses 10 migrant workers every year from Mexico, mainly to work the portions where they also grow tobacco.

He said his family has at times been concerned about the president’s comments on immigration reform and building a wall on the border with Mexico, but is hopeful that Trump will be sympathetic to farmers’ needs.

Each year, farmers nationwide submit applications for seasonal workers from other countries to work in their fields.

They must gain clearance from the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, provide housing and cover visa and transportation costs for each of their workers and prove they have advertised jobs locally.

The process is riddled with hurdles, and yet the demand for seasonal workers has more than doubled in the past five years as local workers become more scarce.

In 2017, farm operators submitted applications requesting more than 206,000 seasonal workers who rely on H-2A visas, compared with requests for more than 90,000 workers in 2012, according to the Labor Department.

Farms, trade and NAFTA

Loss of NAFTA would hit grain and livestock markets at a time when farmers are already hurting. U.S. farm income fell by 50% from 2013 to 2016, and when the numbers are finalized, farm income for 2017 is expected to be only 3% higher, primarily on livestock profits.

"Commodity prices are going to be down for just about everything again this year. As other countries are producing more of their own food, there's less need for them to buy from the U.S.," said Darin VonRuden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

Darin Von Ruden, president of Wisconsin Farmers Union, says 2018 will be a pivotal year for agriculture with so many issues on the table, including immigration reform, international trade deals and commodity prices. He's worried that Trump administration policies, while helpful to some, won't benefit small and midsize farms.

"You watch your neighbors go out of business and hope that you can make it through the next round," VonRuden said.

American farmers want Canada to ease restrictions on U.S. dairy products, and they also fear losing easy access to the Mexican market.

One of every nine tanker loads of milk from Wisconsin ends  up in dairy products out of the country, with much of it going to Mexico.

Millions of bushels of Wisconsin corn are exported, putting any type of trade dispute into perspective.

"By and large, we are starting to see a lot of frustrations from farmers who are tied into the economy at that level," said Chris Holman, a farmer from Stevens Point.

"We have a major problem of over production in this country, and we use exports as a relief valve to maintain market price," said Michael Slattery, a Manitowoc County farmer who spent nearly 20 years working in domestic and international finance, including 12 years for Japan's largest bank.

Meanwhile, massive piles of corn across Iowa help explain why trade is so important to Mark Recker, president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

Iowa farmers grew 2.54 billion bushels of corn last year, the second-largest crop after 2016.

“We grow a lot of corn. We do a great job of it. A lot of times, we grow ourselves into surplus,” Recker said. “We manage that surplus by developing markets overseas.”

Trump wants to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. The loss of NAFTA “could be catastrophic,” said Recker, who farms in northeast Iowa.

“It would be detrimental to the U.S. corn market,” he said. “There can’t not be an impact. It doesn’t take care of itself in a few weeks.”

Currently, Mexico is the main buyer of U.S. corn, spending $2.6 billion in 2016, and some experts estimate that as much as 50% of the nation’s migrant workers may be in the country illegally.

Mexico is already looking to other countries for food in case the U.S. withdraws from NAFTA, said Dermot Hayes, an Iowa State University agricultural economist.

Altogether, the country has bought nearly $18 billion of American farm products, with corn, soybeans, pork and dairy leading its purchases.

“They’re talking to the Europeans, the Argentinians to set up a backup plan,” he said. “Those talks would only intensify” if the U.S. decides to withdraw from NAFTA.

A family business

Farmers and experts are also concerned that decreasing profits and fewer farmers will discourage future farmers from entering the business.

"During the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s, if a young person wanted to get into agriculture, they had a family member to go to and learn from," said Thomas Burrell, president of the 15,000-member, Memphis-based Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association.

"Now, it is infinitely more difficult for the next generation to get a foothold in agriculture and large farmers don't currently have the economic incentive to train them," Burrell said. 

Rick Barrett contributed to this story.