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Blog | February 15, 2018

One Year In: The Trump Administration on Trade & The Farm Bill

Our previous post about President Trump’s impact on farm policy covered some of the policies his administration has enacted that he’s touted as good for family farmers. This post dives into two issues that are important for family farmers: trade and the Farm Bill. Unfortunately, when President Trump spoke before an audience of farmers recently, he didn’t spend much time talking about these vitally important issues. The President also failed to mention the impacts of trade on farmers or the Farm Bill in his State of the Union address. Farmers have been left wanting to hear more… more acknowledgement of the importance of these issues, more policy details, and more promises to fight for family farm agriculture.


Even before his first day in office, President Trump created uncertainty in the markets with his persistent calls to get rid of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, a deal he has called the “worst trade deal in the history of the world.” As president, Trump began to call instead for a renegotiation of the 1994 deal. But throughout the process Trump has repeatedly expressed doubt that a renegotiation could work, saying as recently as October that if it can’t be renegotiated, “it’ll be terminated and it will be fine.” Negotiation teams have now completed their sixth round of talks and still no resolution is in sight.

At the January 8 American Farm Bureau Annual Convention, Trump vowed he’d fight for farmers in a renegotiated NAFTA, saying, “We are going to make it fair for you people again.” And that’s all he said.

There is no question that family farmers want trade policies that are fair – they’ve been calling for that for decades as trade deal after trade deal has increased corporate power in our farm and food system. Family farmers would like trade agreements, for instance, to take into consideration labor, health and environmental concerns, and they’d like them to focus less on the profit of big business. They feel American trade agreements should strengthen the U.S. and our trading partners. Specifically, family farm organizations have called for restoration of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for meat products; to prevent the “dumping” of cheap food products in other countries, which undercuts those countries’ own farmers; and for labor protections for farmworkers.

In any trade negotiation, family farmers, as some of the people most impacted by trade deals, should be at the table to share their experience and help shape the deal.

A renegotiation of NAFTA, then, and a new perspective on global trade deals in general, could be a very positive thing for family farmers. But the way the renegotiation of NAFTA has proceeded—shrouded in secrecy and with very little feedback on progress—is not giving farmers hope that the end result will be an improvement. In any trade negotiation, family farmers, as some of the people most impacted by trade deals, should be at the table to share their experience and help shape the deal.

In the meantime, Trump’s strategy, or lack thereof, has put America’s farm exports at risk. That’s critical because 1/5th of U.S. agricultural production goes on the export market. American farmers are able to grow more food than the United States needs to feed ourselves, so we need export markets—if they go away, the farm economy will take an even deeper dive. At the Farm Bureau meeting and in his State of the Union, Trump made no reference to the turmoil his flip-flopping on trade has created for family farmers and the agricultural economy. The mixed messages have already damaged exports for family farmers, and the resulting glut of grains has dropped the price of corn and soy even lower. Our NAFTA trade partners, Canada and Mexico, have increased their trade globally with China, South America and Europe. They’ve formed new trade agreements that could damage the standing of U.S. farm imports in Canada and Mexico, and leave American farmers in the lurch.

Learn More

Our friends at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) dove deep on trade and we encourage you to read their analysis. In short, they say,

“The prospect that [President Trump] could withdraw from NAFTA with no plan to replace it has generated anxiety among farm groups and trading partners. Trade has been held out as a solution to the current farm crisis, but the focus on increasing exports is dangerously incomplete. In fact, a Trump-negotiated NAFTA could well bring in some of the worst aspects of the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), while reinforcing trade rules that have increased corporate power over farming systems… NAFTA should not solely be assessed by how it affects agricultural exports by multinational agribusiness firms, but instead for its overall impacts on farmers, rural communities and our economies.”

Farm Bill

President Trump asked the farmers present at the Farm Bureau meeting if he should fight for crop insurance in the Farm Bill negotiations. It was an easy way to get a cheer from the crowd; he knew what that answer would be. There’s no question that farmers of all kinds need tools to help them minimize the inherent risk in farming.

But that was the end of his comment on the Farm Bill. Trump had a chance to engage with farmers on this topic, but chose not to. Instead farmers are left wondering about his plan for the Farm Bill, which determines five years’ worth of spending (about $90 billion annually) on farm subsidies, public nutrition, land stewardship, agricultural research, international food aid, export promotion, and many other agricultural programs. The current Farm Bill expires on September 30, 2018, and Congress has said they will prioritize a new farm bill in early 2018.

Net farm income is forecast to decrease by 6.7% in 2018

According to the USDA, net farm income is forecast to decrease $4.3 billion (6.7%) to $59.5 billion in 2018, the lowest level since 2006. Considering that dark reality, Trump should have told farmers he’d fight for Congress to provide money for farm support programs that help farmers minimize risk, including but not limited to crop insurance. He should have told farmers he’d work to increase funding, not cut it as his 2018 budget request proposed. That budget aimed to trim $240 Billion from USDA spending (including $46.54 billion in federal agricultural funding, mostly by capping the amount the government contributes toward crop insurance).

net farm income and net cash farm income 2000 - 2018

The Trump Administration’s 2019 budget request to Congress was released this week, and it cuts agricultural funding even more than last year’s proposal. As the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition puts it, “The President’s FY 2019 budget request is the most anti-rural, anti-farmer proposal the agriculture community has seen in years. If these proposals are realized, it will not just be America’s family farmers and ranchers that suffer – every one of us that depend on a safe, abundant, and sustainable food system will be affected.”

While many parts of the economy are improving, President Trump made no mention in his speech of the fact that the farm sector is in its fifth consecutive year of downturn. The Farm Bill represents the perfect opportunity to present some possible solutions, but he offered no such ideas.

On top of the economic climate, farmers across the country have lived and worked through a record number of natural disasters in 2017. Natural disasters connect to the Farm Bill through disaster payments, as well as through proactive farming practices that create on-farm resilience, and which could be incentivized through the Farm Bill. Farmers deserve investment as the first rung on our economic ladder, and they need increased support right now considering the economic and natural disasters they’ve weathered over the last year and likely into the future.

Learn More

Some of Farm Aid’s partners have very thorough policy suggestions and we hope you’ll jump in and check them out.

National Farmers Union

As Farm Aid’s President, Willie Nelson, says, “We all eat.” Therefore, we all have a stake in the Farm Bill and our elected officials need to hear from us about why the Farm Bill is important to all of us. To this end, the National Farmers Union has introduced a new campaign to make sure everyone understands the Farm Bill.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)

NSAC is our go-to resource for information about farm policy focused particularly on sustainable agriculture. We recommend checking out their guide, An Agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill.

You can also weigh in and support bills that are current in Congress for inclusion in the 2018 Farm Bill on NSAC’s Take Action page.

Finally, we suggest understanding the Farm Bill’s potential to address racial equity in our farm and food system. As NSAC puts it, “U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other government agencies have worked to remedy past discrimination. Still we have a long way to go in addressing the historical exploitation and oppression of farmers of color, farmworkers, and immigrant farmers who still face major barriers and challenges within agriculture.”

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