The view from behind the ox is not that clear

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

What America wants to know, apparently, is why farmers are endeared to Donald Trump. The New York Times, Washington Post, et al, are ever curious about farmer opinions on politics since the Midwest put Trump over the top, including Iowa. Since we are first in the nation in the nominating process, insight into what is going on underneath the seed corn cap appears to be key.

That’s interesting. Because farm households account for about 6% of Iowa’s population (nobody actually knows because on-farm population no longer is tracked at the state level). If there are 800 farms in Buena Vista County, which has 8,000 households, then you can assume the farm share of the population is somewhere about 10% or less.

Also, if you consider that the 6% of farms in Iowa include the acreage with 10 goats, the actual corn-soy crop producer probably is no more than half that on-farm population. So, the farm population is an interesting but electorally insignificant cohort.

Agri-industry, however, has a much bigger political — as opposed to electoral — influence. The Farm Bureau, Charles Koch and the chemical companies control the message, which would have us believe that Midwestern swing states share the interests of the petrochemical crowd that supports President Trump.

There are more Latinos in Crawford and Buena Vista County than there are farmers. There are more meat cutters than pork producers. They would be engaged if anyone ever talked to them. There are legions more financial service industry workers in Des Moines than there are people living on farms. Actuarial analysts and Latinos don’t have the Farm Bureau investment division crafting the political message that tells New York and Washington what Rural America is supposed to be about.

What we get as a representation of rural America, then, is a farmer in a MAGA hat talking on the TV. The interviewer wonders what the farmer thinks about losing the Chinese soy market, or the ethanol waivers. The farmer living off a Trump bump check says he has patience, and so on, but his patience is wearing thin. The person in Poughkeepsie is left to think that the state is in the tank for Trump.

That is not necessarily the view from Des Moines or Storm Lake but is passed along as such by cultural implication. I just had the delight to speak with my long-lost first cousin once-removed from Adair, who had a trailer full of oats to haul out of Wisconsin Labor Day night about 10:30 p.m. He says if you run off the Mexicans there will be no one left who knows how to cut the head off a chicken. He has a $5,000 deductible on his health insurance, and can’t wait to get Medicare. He is not so impressed by the current state of affairs. He used to be an independent in his own rig. Don’t get him going on that. He votes. So does his wife on the back of the Harley. The Wisconsin motorcycle maker’s sales plummeted thanks to trade conflict with Europe. He wore a John Deere sweatshirt, where production is down 20%.

We also spoke to a cousin in St. Joe, Iowa, last week who was among the last of the independent pork producers until driven out of the business in 1998 by consolidation. He can’t believe what the administration is doing to farmers. He would prefer not to be quoted because so many of his neighbors would think worse of him for saying so. Among the farmers, the opinions are not universal. You would barely know it by what we see, hear and read. If you think that Iowa is just farmers, and that they are a monolith, then you would think that there is no point in even having the debate. Which would be entirely wrong. Iowa is much more than what the message-makers might have us think. And don’t assume you know what that person on the Harley with the vice grip on his belt thinks, either. The only person searched for more than the farmer in the MAGA cap is the white male blue-collar worker angry enough to vote for hate. Not everyone fits that profile.

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