Trump's Policies Could Spell Trouble in One of America's Reddest States

Kansas is as landlocked as they come, but is anything but isolated from the global economy.

by Joel Mathis
Mar 10 2017, 5:58pm

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons.

The way Jim Sipes figures it, Donald Trump owes a little something to Kansas farmers. Big cities, especially those on the coasts, voted for Hillary Clinton, so it was rural America—folks like Sipes, a fifth-generation farmer in western Kansas—who carried Trump to victory. Kansas, which Trump won by 20 points and has voted Republican in presidential elections for decades, was a part of that win.

So shortly after the election, Sipes sat down and wrote a "Christmas wish list" for Trump and published it in the local paper. "It is my hope that the new administration and new Congress will listen to the mandate provided by rural America during this election," Sipes warned.

One problem: Trump ran for the presidency on a platform of tearing up and rewriting America's trade agreements, consciously moving away from "free trade" to "fair trade." This, Trump has said, is to protect America's manufacturing workers. But Sipes—like a lot of Kansas farmers—loves the sort of globalism Trump threatens.

"A lot of agricultural market is an export market," Sipes told me. "We need free trade, particularly with the poor commodity prices right now."

Why? Put it this way: If you've ever eaten a steak, there's a pretty good chance it passed through Kansas. A piece of bread? The wheat was probably grown here. That airplane you flew on? At least some of the components were likely manufactured in Wichita. Agriculture and aviation are two of the state's biggest industries—and huge exporters as well.

So Trump's cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty, one of his first actions as president, raised alarms in the state's agriculture community.

"We're losing trade every day we're not included in TPP," Sipes said. "So we're very concerned about that loss."

The fears don't stop there. Some Kansas farmers worry that a decision to renegotiate NAFTA—and to build a border wall—could sour relations with Mexico and put a dent in wheat exports sent to that country. All this leaves the state's Republican politicians are left in the awkward position of backing their party leader and tending to the needs of the Kansas economy. It's not a simple task.

"We have our work cut out for us to make the Trump administration understand the value of agriculture trade," Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in December.

If Kansas is so reliant on free trade, why did the state go so overwhelmingly for Trump?

Some of it was surely habit—Kansas last voted for a Democrat for president in 1964. The state's residents generally support Republicans, and liked Trump's promises to cut back on cumbersome regulations. Even if they had some doubts about Trump, Clinton was a nonstarter for a myriad of cultural and policy reasons.

"Trump may not exactly have fit with Kansas Republican voters ideas," Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, told me. "But HRC certainly didn't. So what were they to do?"

"I'm not sure he was my choice," Sipes said of Trump, who he voted for, albeit warily. "But of the two he was the better choice."

It's true that Trump has provided farmers and ranchers like Sipes some of the stuff on their wish list. He's taken action to eliminate the "Waters of the United States" rule that gave the EPA substantial power over clean water issues, part of a host of regulations Kansas agriculture professionals want undone. Trump's efforts at deregulation "are of huge benefit to agriculture," said Warren Parker, director of policy communication for the Kansas Farm Bureau.

But Karyn Page, president and CEO of Kansas Global Trade Services—a Wichita company that works with small- and medium-sized Kansas business to help them enter the export market—is more critical. Trump's rhetoric on trade, she said, has already caused problems for her clients.

"The worst thing you can do for a business is insert a level of uncertainty," she told me. "It's making it harder for them to do business, and we never want that."

Roberts brought his Senate Agriculture Committee to the state in February to hold a hearing on the upcoming Farm Bill, and worries about trade were palpable throughout the hearing.

Lynda Foster of Foster Dairy told the committee that "the equivalent of one day's milk production each week from the entire US dairy industry ultimately ends up overseas." Exports, she said, are "integral to the health of my farm."

She was far from alone. A parade of "agribusiness" professionals—in sectors ranging from beef to soybeans to wheat and more—testified to the importance of trade agreements. In 2015, one said, Kansas exported $800 million of wheat; only the state's aircraft industry beat that export number.

Ken Wood, a wheat farmer from Chapman and president of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, was explicit in his fears about what a protectionist Trumpian trade policy could do to him and his colleagues, saying he was "disappointed" by the cancellation of TPP. His organization remains a supporter of NAFTA, he said, which "created a duty-free wheat trade which moved Mexico into a top-five export market for US wheat."

Any time we have more protectionist behavior, it's not good for global trade and it's not good for American competitiveness.

"Half of the wheat grown in Kansas is exported, and without trade, the Kansas farmer will continue to struggle," Wood said. "If the US decided to leave NAFTA or extract painful concessions, it is likely that Mexico will target the most sensitive sectors, and agriculture in particular. Mexico has alternatives when it comes to wheat."

Parker, at the Kansas Farm Bureau, is cautious: "Regardless of who is in the White House," he said, "we'll try to work with them for the betterment of agriculture."

But it's apparent that the state's agriculture leaders are concerned that in renegotiating trade agreements, Trump will emphasize manufacturing jobs and forget about farmers. "Trade is incredibly important," Parker said. "We need and plan to keep the pressure on the administration to hold to [Trump's] word that agriculture will be at the table."

When asked whether Trump-loving Kansas can weather Donald Trump's rhetoric and policies, Page is careful not to take a shot directly at the president. "It's important to wait and see what happens before reacting," she said. She did, however, note that 17 percent of the state's economy relies on exports—a number that goes well above 20 percent for the economy of Wichita, the largest city in Kansas.

"Any time we have more protectionist behavior, it's not good for global trade and it's not good for American competitiveness," said Page. "Within the rule of law and fairness, we want to keep the borders open."

Kansas farmers and ranchers apparently agree. "The vast majority of my fellow livestock producers believe the livestock industry is best served by the process of free enterprise and free trade," David Clawson, and Englewood rancher and president of the Kansas Livestock Association, told the ag committee in February.

It is Senator Roberts who will be charged with carrying that message to the president. His job has been complicated by low prices in the farm economy and problems getting a confirmation hearing scheduled for Trump's Secretary of Agriculture nominee, Sonny Perdue. His office did not return my calls for comment, but Roberts—often an undyingly loyal party man—has been open about his concerns that President Trump will leave farmers behind.

The state's ag industry needs "a robust and aggressive and transparent trade policy, quickly. Quickly," he said at the February hearing. "It's time. It's time."

Sipes, meanwhile, has grown impatient. Trump, he believes, dragged his heels in nominating Perdue—the last cabinet member nominated—and the failure to get him confirmed is grating. It appears, Sipes said, that Trump sees other issues as a "higher priority."

And that's irritating. Without new trade agreements and an ag secretary to push them forward, Sipes believes, Kansas farmers will start to fall by the wayside. He represents 11 counties on the Kansas Farm Bureau.

""Nearly every county has the story of a longtime farmer that's given up," Sipes said. "Trade's a pretty big deal."

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