For Wisconsin's Dairy Farmers, Tariffs Could Reshape The Race For The Senate | Texas Public Radio

For Wisconsin's Dairy Farmers, Tariffs Could Reshape The Race For The Senate

Aug 12, 2018
Originally published on August 13, 2018 8:36 am

Janet Clark hopes to keep her dairy farm in the family. She inherited Vision Aire Farms from her parents, and now runs it with her younger brother.

The farm is idyllic, tucked away amid rolling green hills of corn and sunflower fields. One side of the farm holds a line of calves. They are individually fed by Clark's children and their cousins, playfully holding milk bottles for them to drink.

It's here where Clark and her family begin work each day at 5:30 a.m., doing chores and milking cows. But times are tough. Milk prices have already fallen 4 percent this year, continuing a steady decline since 2014, according to data from the Labor Department. Meanwhile, net farm income, a broad measure of profits, is forecast to drop this year to its lowest level since 2006, according to the Department of Agriculture.

"It hits my bottom line," Clark says about falling milk prices. "The last two years have been most challenging."

Even tougher times might be ahead, she worries. Wisconsin is the number-two dairy supplier in the country. In an industry where margins can be razor thin, farmers like Clark have come to rely on selling their milk products abroad, specifically Mexico, which is one of the biggest importers of U.S. dairy.

When the Trump administration announced earlier this year that Mexico, Canada and the European Union would face tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, Mexico responded by levying tariffs of up to 25 percent on U.S. dairy products.

Clark says those tariffs threaten business relationships that farmers have spent years cultivating.

"We have created relationships with the people that we're exporting with," Clark says. "Now they're going to back off, and not buy from us. So that opens the door for other people to create those relationships."

The president's tariffs are a complicated subject for many farmers in Wisconsin. The state's rural communities swung hard for Donald Trump in 2016, helping him become the first Republican to win Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Clark says she supports the president, but admits she's worried. The White House has proposed a plan to spend $12 billion in emergency farm aid, but, says Clark, "I would rather have trade than have aid."

It's a mantra echoed my many farmers in Wisconsin.

Hoping for a better deal

At the Wisconsin State Fair this month, farmers from across the state were showing off their prize cattle. Among several stalls, cattle were getting full beauty treatments with fur blowouts and hair spray, their coats delicately sheared and brushed to look fluffy.

That's where 70-year-old Dan Angotti, wearing denim overalls and a baseball cap, was hanging out with his grandchildren. Angotti runs Dad Acres in a town called Freedom. The region went all in for Trump during the 2016 election.

Despite concerns over the tariffs, Angotti says he's willing to give the president as long as it takes to get a better deal.

"I figure by fall or the first of the year, it will get straightened out. And it will," Angotti says. "He's our president and I support him."

But a few stalls down, Jeff Leahy, a beef and grain farmer from Lafayette County, says he feels the community is paying an unfair price for the president's trade strategy.

"They're using [agriculture] as leverage and that's not fair to us," Leahy says.

Leahy says the president was too quick in enacting tariffs. "You just can't go and say I'm going to do this, and not realize who it's going to affect," he says.

The race for the Senate

Farmers are a key constituency for politicians in Wisconsin, and the issue of tariffs has loomed large for the top two GOP candidates fighting to take on the incumbent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin this November. The primary is Tuesday.

One of those candidates, Leah Vukmir, is a state senator and registered nurse. She has been endorsed by Wisconsin's own Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, and by the state's Republican Party.

Like many Wisconsin Republicans in 2016, Vukmir was initially not sold on Trump. But she has emerged as a vocal supporter of the president and his tariffs.

"I want America to succeed," she says. "And he is leading that charge, and that's why I want to stand with him in Washington to help."

Her opponent, Kevin Nicholson, a decorated combat veteran and business consultant, also supports the president and his tariff policy.

"If he can make it better, we're going to give him the benefit of the doubt and we're going to give him the time," Nicholson said during a recent stop at Miss Katie's diner in Milwaukee. "It's clear as day, this is what the president is trying to do, is let's bring our trade partners back to the negotiation table and eliminate all tariffs."

The status quo of foreign trade deals is unsustainable for the people of Wisconsin, Nicholson says.

"The status quo that says Canada, EU, China, India are allowed to slap tariffs or to engineer their economies in such a way that they protect their own industries when we do not do the same," he says. "That's what's really been bad for the people of Wisconsin and that's what needs change."

Baldwin, the incumbent they're hoping to unseat, has fought Trump on tariffs every step of the way. She's one of 10 Senate Democrats running for re-election in states that Trump won in 2016.

Republicans across the country are pouring millions of dollars into the race to defeat Baldwin, whose position on tariffs stands in stark contrast with her GOP rivals.

She says the president's trade war was "absolutely unnecessary," and that troubles with the farm industry will only get worse from trade wars and tariffs.

"Canada and Mexico and the European Union are not the problem, and the idea that the Trump administration has decided to not exempt those countries defies imagination," Baldwin said in a telephone interview while campaigning in Wausau, Wisc. "It's not smart trade policy."

For her part, Clark from Vision Aire Farms says she plans to vote in both Tuesday's primaries and November's midterm elections. She says she will look at the person, not the ticket.

"I want to know what every American wants: What are you going to do for me?" Clark says. "How are you going to affect me and my business? So I will see."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

As the 2018 midterms approach, there's one issue that threatens to separate President Trump from his base - tariffs.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Those are the cows of Vision-Aire Farms in Eldorado, Wis. This farm is owned and run by Janet Clark and her family.

JANET CLARK: And it's getting to be feeding time, so they're going to - now that they hear me, they'll start yelling in a little bit here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's the second generation. And, as she walks us around, the third generation - her kids and her brothers - are giving each other rides on the farm equipment and helping out nursing baby calves.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: We're going to go feed these ones. I'm not feeding the one that was born.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a beautiful farm. Immaculate, really. A barn nestled in the greenest hills surrounded by corn and sunflower fields.

CLARK: Every day, I start out at 5:30 in the morning. I'm here feeding calves 'cause that takes me about a couple hours to feed calves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And she'll tell you it is hard work even in the best of times. And these are not the best of times.

CLARK: The last two years have been the most challenging. Prices have been very stagnant. Our milk prices have been kind of low.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dairy is particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in the market.

CLARK: To do this every single day, it still costs me the same amount of money. And...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Cows need to be milked. They need to be fed.

CLARK: They need to be milked. There's no valve to shut off, right? (Laughter) It's not like some industries.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Into this mix came President Trump's announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs on Mexico, Canada, the European Union and China. And it didn't take long for countries to slap retaliatory tariffs on iconic U.S. products, including dairy. And since a big part of Wisconsin's dairy goes abroad, that's been a big problem for farmers like Janet.

CLARK: We have created relationships with the people that we're exporting with, and we have really good relationships. Now they're going to back off and not buy from us. So then that gives - that opens the door for other people to come in and create those relationships.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And she's worried that clients like Mexico will start buying cheese from, say, Italy instead of Wisconsin, and American dairy won't get those hard-won relationships back. Trump's tariffs are a complicated subject for many farmers in Wisconsin. Rural communities swung hard for Donald Trump in 2016 and contributed to his victory. Janet supports the president, but she's worried.

CLARK: How much time do some of us dairy farmers have? We've already lost a lot of dairy farmers along the way. He's in the - he's going to be the president for the next couple of years, so that is what we have to give him the time of. And, hopefully - that what he's doing is making the right decisions. And I think he's going to be a good leader in what he does.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To get the pulse of the rural vote, and some chocolate-covered fresh gouda on a stick, we head to an important event for anyone who deals with cattle.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Welcome to the state fair. Have a fair-tastic time and a wonder-fair evening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the Wisconsin State Fair, farmers from across the state are showing off their prize steers. They're getting full beauty treatments - blowouts, hairspray. Their coats are downy and fluffy. And, to be honest, I have never seen more beautiful cattle in all my life. That's where we meet 70-year-old Dan Angotti, wearing denim overalls and a baseball cap. He's from...

DAN ANGOTTI: A little town called Freedom in Outagamie County.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh really? It's called Freedom? That's great.

ANGOTTI: Yup.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did it get that name?

ANGOTTI: (Laughing) I don't know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he says, when it comes to trade, it was time to shake things up.

ANGOTTI: Everybody's been getting away with everything for so long. And the United States is - I believe it will get straightened out. And it will.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How much time do you think farmers will give him? How much time will you give him?

ANGOTTI: Me? As long as it takes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I take it you're a supporter of the president?

ANGOTTI: He's our president. I will support him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But a few stalls down, Jeff Leahy from Lafayette County feels that the farming community is paying an unfair price for the president's strategy.

JEFF LEAHY: They're using ag as leverage, and that's not fair to us 'cause they're using us to get the other tariffs on metal and whatever other stuff that we're out of whack on. They're using food to do that, I think.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, let me ask you, what do you think about the president's sort of strategy?

LEAHY: I think he did it too quick. You just can't go and say, I'm going to do this and not realize who it's going to effect.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A couple of weeks ago, the Trump administration announced up to $12 billion in emergency aid for farmers caught in the trade war. But farmers we talked to said they want trade, not aid.

LEAHY: Twelve billion dollars. But how are we going to get it? Who's going to get it?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: These farmers are a key constituency for the top two Republican candidates fighting to take on the incumbent, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin. Leah Vukmir is one of them. And naturally, she's also at the state fair, where she's reaching out to potential voters for this Tuesday's primary elections.

LEAH VUKMIR: Well, thanks for saying hi. I do appreciate it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh, well it was very nice seeing you.

VUKMIR: Thank you. I'd love your support August 14.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vukmir is a registered nurse and a state senator. She's got the establishment behind her. She's been endorsed by Wisconsin's own Paul Ryan, speaker of the House, and the state GOP. These days, if you're a Republican here, you have to be all in for Trump.

VUKMIR: I want America to succeed. And he is leading that charge. And that's why I want to stand with him in Washington to help.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's also standing with him on tariffs.

VUKMIR: I'm amazed at the number of farmers who are telling me, we're already in a bad situation. If he can make it better, we're going to give him the benefit of the doubt, and we're going to give him the time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vukmir's chief rival is Kevin Nicholson. He's a decorated combat veteran and a business consultant. We meet him at another iconic political stop - Miss Katie's Diner in Milwaukee.

KEVIN NICHOLSON: It's clear as day this is what the president's trying to do - is let's bring our trade partners back to the negotiation table and eliminate all tariffs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On the menu, the corned beef hash skillet they served to Hillary Clinton and the bacon skillet they served to then-candidate Donald Trump. Safe to say that Nicholson was into the bacon skillet. But Nicholson echoes what his opponent says on trade.

NICHOLSON: What I would point out is the status quo is unsustainable for the people of Wisconsin. The status quo that says Canada, EU, China, India are allowed to slap tariffs or to engineer their economies in such a way that they protect their own industries while we do not do the same - that's what's really been bad for the people of Wisconsin. And that's what needs to change.

TAMMY BALDWIN: They have been drafted into a trade war that was not of their making.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Democrat Tammy Baldwin, the senator they're hoping to unseat, has fought Trump on his tariffs every step of the way. She's one of the 10 Senate Democrats running for re-election in states that went for Trump. Republicans across the country are pouring millions of dollars into the race to defeat Baldwin. And her position on tariffs is a stark contrast with her GOP rivals.

BALDWIN: Canada and Mexico and the European Union are not the problem. And the idea that Trump administration has decided to not exempt those countries is - it defies imagination, and it's not smart trade policy. In fact, it's leading to this trade war.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She thinks Trump and the GOP are out of touch with rural voters now.

BALDWIN: I think the situation is urgent. I don't hear those who are living on the brink right now saying, we can stand much longer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But for Baldwin to win, it isn't just farmers she needs. She has to bring in another crucial demographic - African-American voters. Elsewhere in the show, we'll head to Milwaukee and hear from them. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.