By Kris Maher | Photographs by Tim Gruber for The Wall Street Journal
HENDERSON, Minn. -- Doug Wenner can't remember a tougher year to be a farmer.
Record rainfall made it difficult to plant and harvest his crops. The trade war with China is now a factor keeping prices too low for him to make a profit on what he grew.
Many farmers in the rural Midwest are frustrated with President Trump's trade policies. Yet in southern Minnesota, many who voted for him in 2016 plan to support him again next year, which would be key for Mr. Trump as he hopes to flip a state he narrowly lost in 2016.
"In my gut, I still think he's doing the right thing," said Mr. Wenner, 56 years old, who grows corn and soybeans on 2,500 acres and raises about 14,000 pigs in nearby St. Peter. "It just so happens we're on the side that's getting the short end of the stick."
In Minnesota, trade tensions are testing farmers' loyalty to the president as many are still reeling from a late, messy harvest. Yields are down, and farmers are storing as much grain as possible, hoping they can sell when prices rise. With snow on the fields, some have yet to bring in all their crops.
Mr. Trump lost Minnesota in 2016 by fewer than 45,000 votes, or 1.5 percentage points, and he is making a big push for the state in 2020. A recent state poll shows him trailing Democrats in hypothetical matchups by roughly the same margins as some national polls, and no GOP presidential candidate has won the state since Richard Nixon in 1972. But Democrats say they expect a tight race.
"There is a real chance he could win this," said Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which is affiliated with national Democrats. He said he believes many farmers are standing by the president. "It gives me some concern that while they're suffering they're going to grin and bear it," he said.
Mr. Martin said the Trump campaign is outspending Democrats by 4 to 1 on digital ads in Minnesota and has 20 paid staffers and four offices, a stronger push than he has ever seen by a Republican presidential candidate at this point in the campaign.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul region, where Mr. Trump badly lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016, accounts for more than half of the state's voters, said David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul. But turnout tends to be higher among rural voters, which generally back Mr. Trump. "Democrats have been in denial for a long time that this is a state that's on the edge of flipping," he said.
Some farmers said they oppose the impeachment inquiry into the president and that Democrats in Congress deserve some blame on trade for not yet approving a deal the administration has negotiated with Mexico and Canada to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement -- a delay they say is hampering agricultural exports.
"They don't want to give Trump a win on this thing, even though it's benefiting their constituents," said Les Anderson, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. "I look at what Trump has done for the economy, and it's hard to vote against that."
This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said a deal on the trade pact could be announced soon. While labor groups including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said it is an improvement over Nafta, the new deal has been widely criticized for not having stronger enforcement provisions to prevent U.S. companies from moving across the border.
Mr. Anderson and others point out that prices for corn and soybeans had been depressed for several years before China slapped retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agricultural products earlier this year. He said the African swine fever decimating hogs in China is also killing demand for grain the country imports.
At the same time, a decision to grant waivers to oil refineries to use less ethanol has also angered many farmers, who see the move as cutting demand for corn and further hurting prices.
"Why be an eternal optimist and put a crop in the ground?" said Ted Winter, 69, of Fulda. "All of a sudden it gets wiped away." He said he voted for Mrs. Clinton and will again vote Democrat.
The Trump administration announced $16 billion in assistance this year to farmers affected by the trade war with China. Farmers are also tapping crop insurance this year. But many say they are still struggling to break even.
Brian Romsdahl, 54, of Butterfield, compared Mr. Trump's trade policies to someone walking down a beach and kicking over a sandcastle. This year, he lost 30% of his corn crop to rain and high winds and in 2018 paid $41,000 for health insurance for himself and his wife.
"It's all kind of hanging in the balance," Mr. Romsdahl said of his finances. He described himself as a Roosevelt Democrat and said he likes Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. "When push comes to shove it will just be anybody but Trump."
There was a 24% increase in farmers filing for bankruptcy in the 12-month period ended in September, compared with the prior year, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Joel Schreurs, a board member of the American Soybean Association said most Minnesota farmers he has spoken to will vote for President Trump again.
The tough farm economy has begun to ripple through Henderson, with a population of about 950 and a tiny but vibrant downtown. Farmers still eat at the Henderson RoadHaus restaurant, according to owner Danny Ross, but LaDonna Bender says fewer farmers are buying tools at the True Value Hardware store she owns with her husband. Mayor Paul Menne said the city is relying more on festivals celebrating classic cars, hummingbirds and sauerkraut. Fans of Prince visit because scenes from the movie "Purple Rain" were filmed nearby, and a mural of the pop icon adorns an outside wall.
Outside Henderson, Frank Grimm, 68, said he isn't sure if he will vote for Mr. Trump a second time. He is down to farming about 100 acres. Walking through a barn where he is raising 26 calves, he said Mr. Trump was wrong to start a trade war but that he doesn't like any Democratic candidates. "I am undecided," he said. "I don't see a Democrat that is going to be viable against him."
Write to Kris Maher at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 16, 2019 00:15 ET (05:15 GMT)
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