Democratic Candidates’ Agriculture Policies Don’t Resonate With Some Oklahoma Farmers
For Shane Coe, a sixth-generation Chickasha farmer, a short work day is 16 hours. He grows wheat and oats and raises cattle, and his wife, Denise, runs a quick lube shop.
He’s a registered Democrat, but like the majority of farmers, he voted for Donald Trump in 2016 — and plans to do so again in November.
Coe’s biggest concern for the 2020 election is that a Democrat will win the vote. The agriculture business hinges on the stock market, which has performed well during the Trump administration, he said.
“When Trump was elected, it helped us immensely,” Coe said. “Every one of the guys that I deal with that are related to agriculture — and I do mean every one of them — are wearing Trump 2020 tee shirts.”
On Jan. 15, after a two-year trade war, President Donald Trump signed a “Phase One” agreement with China, in which the country pledged to purchase $32 billion of American agricultural goods over the next two years. By Jan. 19, Trump’s approval rating among farmers had risen to a record 83%, one poll found.
Although the trade war slashed U.S. agricultural exports to China by billions of dollars, Coe said he wasn’t affected as much as he thought he’d be. Denise Coe agreed, although she said there was a “little bumpy road” at first.
“But once you get down that and things get ironed out, it was by far in our best interest,” she said.
The trade war’s effects on farming vary by commodity, said Amy Hagerman, former agricultural economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Oklahoma is a wheat and cattle state, both of which don’t have many entanglements with China for production and trade. In turn, these industries have escaped some consequences of the market conflict, she said.
“We are huge consumers of our own agricultural products,” Hagerman said. “And I think that that has been a boom for some of our agricultural industries, as these trade agreements have been worked out.”
Oklahoma’s cotton and grain sorghum industries were not as lucky, Hagerman said — the U.S. relies on other countries to process cotton as textiles, and grain sorghum is a large feed source exported to China specifically.
In the midst of the Trump administration’s trade tensions with China, which held many agricultural commodities in the balance, 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have criticized the president for his handling of the issue.
Notably, former Vice President Joe Biden’s plan for rural America dedicates its first tenant to pursuing “a trade policy that works for American farmers,” attacking Trump for the price some farmers have paid during the “damaging and erratic trade war.”
Other candidates take this idea further. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D, Mass.) grew up in Oklahoma and is, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I, Vermont), one of the most progressive presidential candidates. Warren has proposed sweeping overhauls of the farming industry, and Sanders has similar ideas.
The two senators want to break up large agribusinesses that they say have hurt the success of small farmers. But Coe said he doesn’t have issues with the industry’s big corporations.
“If it weren't for them, everything would drop because there's not as many buyers that way,” he said.
Whether big business harms smaller players in the agriculture industry depends on the sector and product, Hagerman said. In the crops market specifically, there are pros and cons for small farms since many large corporations offer benefits.
For example, some large seed companies invest in research to combat costly issues like pests and weed stress. This helps farmers save money on maintenance, and also relieves stress on farmland.
But corporate farming is often criticized for its environmental practices and monopolization — relatively few companies control most of the nation’s food production. Nine U.S. states have enacted laws to limit or prohibit corporate farming, although these provisions sometimes have exceptions for family-owned corporate farms.
Right now, farmers are eligible for government subsidies when markets fluctuate. But Warren — who grew up in Oklahoma — wants to back away from this arrangement and instead allow the government to cover farmers’ costs of production. This loan could be repaid either with commodity profits or with collateral.
With the second option, the government could store farmers’ products if they don’t sell to private buyers. This takes goods out of circulation, which could drive up prices. But these kinds of proposals are sometimes criticized for departing from free market policy.
Coe, for instance, said he doesn’t like federal regulation of the agriculture industry. He said farmers can store their products themselves until the market is back up.
“Quite frankly, I wish government would leave it alone,” he said. “I’m a sixth-generation farmer, and we've been doing a pretty good job up to now by ourselves.”
Over the past week, both Warren and Sanders held rallies in Iowa, but neither candidate made much mention of the agriculture industry during this time — even though agriculture is significant to the economies of both Iowa and Oklahoma.
Sanders won Oklahoma’s Democratic primary in 2016, and Gaylord News asked Warren how she plans to recapture her home state in 2020. She echoed her commitment to a grassroots campaign, which she said resonates with voters both in Oklahoma and other regions. She did not comment on winning over the state’s agricultural workers.
In contrast, Trump told Iowans at a Jan. 30 rally that their farms would deteriorate if he doesn’t serve a second term, the Des Moines Register reported.
Shane Coe said this concern also resonates in Oklahoma.
“The (progressive) regulations would absolutely just put a lot of us out of business,” he said.
Hagerman said tax policy and water issues will be the two biggest issues for Oklahoma farmers in the upcoming election, with trade as a close third. When navigating agricultural matters, she said to look at the direct impacts of certain policies instead of giving into political division:
“Kind of putting aside the politics aspect of it, and paying attention to just objectively ‘What is the impact on our agricultural industries?’”
Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.