OKABENA, MINN. – The rain came first, drenching the fields and delaying planting. Then 70 mph wind knocked down half their corn. Chinese tariffs sank the price of soybeans. And if that weren't enough, demand for corn dropped after Washington gave oil refineries a pass on using ethanol.
For Rachel and Lance Daberkow, poor weather compounded by President Donald Trump's trade and fuel policies has meant cutting costs as income from their 640-acre farm dwindled over the past two years. Like some other growers around Minnesota struggling with an uncertain farm economy, their faith in a president who carried rural America four years ago is being tested.
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As the father of two young boys, Lance Daberkow, 37, sees Trump at least trying to resolve long-standing trade problems with China. He believes farmers will benefit long term if Trump is re-elected.
His wife is warier: "If you continually are going to take away our opportunities," Rachel says, "why would I want to do business with you?"
Farm families like the Daberkows are critical to Trump's election hopes in Minnesota, which he lost by less than 44,000 votes in 2016. Along with Wisconsin and Michigan, traditionally Democratic states that Trump narrowly won, Minnesota has joined the broader tapestry of the Upper Midwest battleground, one Trump made personal at an October rally in Minneapolis when he vowed to take the state.
Polls show that support for Trump continues in rural America, which generally aligns with his views on gun rights, abortion and religion. Recent progress on trade deals has sparked hopes of change, but farmers' frustrations have long been mounting as they endure the worst economic conditions since the 1980s farm crisis.
And as goes farm country, so goes small-town America.
Many farmers in Minnesota say that support for Trump remains as strong as ever, notwithstanding the brash New Yorker's endless run of controversies and the ongoing impeachment proceedings. But some also predict a potential softening in that support if the president doesn't conclude an effective full trade deal with China — or if a more moderate Democratic candidate emerges.
"Does that translate into significantly less support? The guys who I know were big Trump supporters still are, and I don't think that's going to change," said John Zimmerman, who raises turkeys, corn and soybeans in Northfield. "Some of the middle guys, who go back and forth like me, it depends on who the candidates are. But there is an open door there."
In a state as competitive as Minnesota, where the Twin Cities region often provides the winning margin for Democrats in statewide races, Trump can ill afford much erosion in farm country.
Nationally, farmers and ranchers made up slightly more than 1% of the country's population in 2017, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Of those 3.4 million food producers, the number of undecided "middle guys" is small — but not insignificant — on Election Day.
The Trump campaign made clear at a presentation in December that rural counties with small populations in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin will be a big part of its re-election strategy in 2020.
"It doesn't take a lot to swing that vote to another candidate," Chris Pollack, a dairy farmer in Ripon, Wis., said of his state, which unexpectedly went to Trump in 2016 by less than one percentage point. He said farmers will again be "part of the puzzle."
A few ticks in the farm economy also could be a part of that puzzle. While the U.S. economy overall remains strong — a key campaign talking point for Trump — farmers' hardships have reverberated in some small towns in Minnesota. Thirty-one Minnesota farms filed for bankruptcy in the past year, a 10-year high, the American Farm Bureau reported in September.
On a freezing December morning, Lance Daberkow stopped to deposit checks from grain sales at First National Bank in Lakefield, near the Iowa border. He lamented the drop in price for a bushel of corn to around $3.50, down from $7 in 2013. Soybean prices declined from about $10.40 a bushel before the China trade war started in 2018 to less than $9.
As a result, Daberkow said, farmers like him are looking for ways to cut back on big equipment purchases and family expenses. To supplement his lost income, he works two side jobs off the farm.
"That means just less trips going out for supper, and that hurts the local economy," he said as he chatted with loan officer Jesse Ackermann.
"It all kinds of follows through in these small rural communities," Ackermann replied. "From farming it goes all the way down to local co-ops, local businesses, banks."
The ripples have been felt across the state. In Willmar, the aisles of Schwanke Tractor and Combine were quiet on a December morning as manager Tom Conway described how sales had slumped.
"Back when corn prices were high, we were selling tools up the wazoo because guys were building up their shops," Conway said. "Now everybody is holding tight."
Conway and salesman Gary Ellingson, both clad in plaid, listened to the radio as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the Democratic-led House and the Trump administration had reached a deal on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. Along with the trade war with China, the prolonged rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement has left many Minnesota farmers uneasy.
Ellingson hoped the deal would bode well for negotiations with China. "If we can settle something with Mexico and Canada, they are going to be a little more willing to deal with us," he said.
But the long-term market effects remain unclear. Trump signed an partial trade agreement Wednesday committing China to boost purchases of U.S. exports by $200 billion over two years, including $32 billion more in farm products. But critics warn that Beijing has a history of making promises it doesn't keep, and that a one-time deal does not guarantee U.S. farmers sustained access to China's market. Some farmers also say the ramifications of the trade war will linger.
"It's going to take years to get it back," Nate Hultgren, of Raymond, said of his lost soybean markets. He estimates his family farm took a total loss of up to $12,500 on soybeans because of the trade war with China.
Trump's farm bailout, paying out $19 billion so far, was intended to offset the impact on farmers of the administration's trade disputes with China, Mexico, Canada and other countries. Since October 2018, nearly $1.5 billion has been paid out to an estimated 54,000 farmers in Minnesota.
Farmers widely agree that the subsidies have been a lifeline, albeit one they would rather not need. "We are treading water the way it is. At least that is something, but I'm not looking for something to just get me through the year. I'm looking for a long-term agreement," said Rachel Daberkow, 35.
At the same time, some Minnesota farmers have made clear that they don't vote on trade policy alone.
Noah Hultgren, Nate's brother, wants less government spending, opposes abortion and is wary of policies such as Medicare for All or eliminating college debt. For a lot of farmers social issues outweigh the losses they've taken from tariffs, he said.
"They'll say, 'Maybe he has cost us one dollar a bushel on soybeans, but I like his stance on abortion, or other conservative stances,' " Noah said.
Impeachment also does not seem to be changing many minds among rural Trump supporters, who tend to see it as a distant, partisan exercise. Noah said he and others are just tired of the partisanship.
Noah, 40, and Nate, 43, help run their family farm west of Willmar, a sprawling 6,000-acre operation. Both men supported Trump in 2016 and lean Republican, though they like Seventh Congressional District Rep. Collin Peterson — one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, who voted against impeachment.
While Noah plans to vote for Trump, Nate is on the fence. The farm's CEO, Nate has a finance degree and manages the budget from a modern office with the black and red family logo on the wall. He watched the trade war with China shrink their bottom line, and he's hesitant to vote for Trump unless he reaches a firm trade deal before Election Day.
Farmers also have been dinged by a regulatory rollback in biofuels. Trump's Environmental Protection Agency expanded the number of waivers it gives to oil refiners, allowing them to use less than the required amount of corn-based ethanol to make gasoline. About 33% of Minnesota's corn crop went to ethanol production, according to a 2018 Minnesota Bio-Fuels Association report.
On a brisk afternoon in mid-November, Paul Freeman paused his slow work tilling frozen ground to talk about Trump. Poor weather conditions meant he had finally finished harvesting at his corn and soybean farm in Starbuck, south of Alexandria, just a couple of days before. A part owner in ethanol plants, Freeman said the "baloney with the waivers" means "fat cat" oil companies are benefiting off his back — exacerbating the pain of a wet, cold season. Freeman said farmers he talks to are divided on whether Trump's actions will benefit them long-term, but personally he is ready to move on.
"The plain old truth is that Donald Trump is killing the American farmer," Freeman said.
Trump's character also has pushed some farmers to seek an alternative.
"It means something to me that my kids all think he's a bad person," said Nate Hultgren, whose five young children are growing up next door to their cousins and grandparents in the same bucolic setting where he and Noah were raised.
But to chip away at Trump support in rural Minnesota, Democrats would likely have to stay in the center lane of American politics, something that is not at all certain.
Nate is one of several Minnesota farmers — including some Republicans — who said they would potentially vote for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar if she won the Democratic nomination. She has visited their local sugar beet cooperative, and Nate said he trusts her more than the other candidates. But with Klobuchar netting in the single digits of national polls, he is looking at other options. And he is unimpressed.
Agricultural policy seldom comes up in presidential elections, but many farmers still feel like Trump speaks to them.
Shayne Isane, who farms near the Canadian border in Badger, Minn., believes Trump has paid more attention to farm country than any president since Jimmy Carter, who was a peanut farmer.
"It probably was middle America ... that probably got him elected. So in a sense he's returned that by paying a lot of attention to rural America," Isane said. "That's nice to see. You always like to feel that you're not inconsequential."
Isane voted for Trump and attended the president's visit to a Burnsville business roundtable last April. But his enthusiasm has waned. Lost income from low soybean prices forced him to restructure debt and delay updates to farm technology.
"You just see a lot of impatience and frustration. Farmers right now are facing a lot of financial and emotional challenges," Isane said. "Everybody is feeling like — neighbors, friends and relatives — we need a win and we need some good news."