Wisconsin Farmers on Trade Wars, Pandemic Impact, and the Future

4 years after rural Wisconsin helped Trump win, farmers split on impact of president's policies
October 6, 2020 Updated: October 6, 2020

PLATTEVILLE, Wis.—Tom Weigel, a third-generation dairy farmer in Platteville, likes how the Trump administration has helped farmers since the pandemic upended the market. After four years of losses amid low milk prices, he was able to finally break even a few months ago.

“Trump is taking care of the farmers. He is listening,” Weigel told The Epoch Times on his farm on Sept. 21. Weigel voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and plans to do so again in November.

Four years ago, farmers like Weigel delivered a historic margin for Trump. Rural Wisconsin accounted for 60 percent of the vote shift in the state toward Republican, and Trump won those counties by a larger margin than any other Republican in about three decades. Rural Wisconsin helped him win the state.

In September, both Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden paid two visits to Wisconsin, signaling the importance of the state in the coming election. During a campaign stop at Mosinee, Wisconsin, on Sept. 17, Trump announced an additional $13 billion in aid to help farmers and ranchers recover losses caused by the pandemic.

According to an August Marquette Law School poll, Trump had a 7-point edge over Biden in rural western and northern Wisconsin. Though in the state overall, Biden had support from 49 percent of polled voters, and Trump had 44 percent.

The Epoch Times spoke with dairy, corn, and soybean farmers in western Wisconsin. Many farmers still support Trump amid economic challenges brought by the pandemic, previous low milk prices, and trade wars. Some others say his administration has helped large farms when it should have helped the little guys, and that Trump’s trade wars have hurt rural America.

Two Sides of the Road

Weigel particularly liked the innovative move by the Trump administration to buy surplus agricultural products, such as milk and produce, and give them away to needy families amid the pandemic. The conventional way for the government to handle surplus is to store it, then dump it on the market when demand rises. But that causes prices to drop and farmers such as Weigel get less for their products.

“That just did wonders to our market,” Weigel said of the initiative called Farmers to Families Food Box Program, spearheaded by Ivanka Trump. “That’s the best thing ever happened. Nobody else has even done that. … [Ivanka Trump] is definitely using her head there.”

He’s not usually one to put campaign signs on his property, but after seeing the sign on his neighbor’s lawn for Biden, Weigel put up a few of his own for Trump.

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A sign on farmer Tom Weigel’s property shows his support for President Donald Trump, in Platteville, Wis., on Sept. 21, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)
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A sign supporting Democratic nominee Joe Biden stands on the property of Myron Tranel, in Platteville, Wis., on Sept. 21, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

Weigel’s neighbor Myron Tranel is on the other side of the road from him, both literally and figuratively.

Tranel said of Weigel, “He’s gone through more hard times with milking cows under Trump than he ever went through under Obama.”

Though Tranel is a more well-to-do corn and soybean farmer, one of his main concerns is that the government hasn’t taken enough care of struggling small-scale farmers such as Weigel.

Tranel contends that the largest federal payments have gone to the biggest farms. “If you have a net worth of $10 million, you think the government should send you checks?”

According to an August report by the independent watchdog agency Government Accountability Office, 25 large farms received an average of $1.5 million payments from the total $14.5 billion farm aid in 2019.

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Myron Tranel stands on his corn and soybean farm in Platteville, Wis., on Sept. 21, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

Tranel said the last Republican presidential candidate he voted for was Richard Nixon, whose corruption and impeachment deeply disappointed him. He says Trump is worse. His criticisms were broad, including how Trump has handled international relations and trade.

“You can’t beat the other guy up and then say let’s be friends,” Tranel said. “He took a sledgehammer to what needed a screwdriver.”

‘He has accomplished a lot’

Cary Moser, a small-dairy farmer in Westby, Wisconsin, has been disappointed with Democrats in recent years. He said he’s generally an independent voter, but for the first time in his life, he will vote straight-ticket Republican this fall.

“All the farfetched stories and money that was spent on chasing schemes, that looks to me like the Democrats were guilty of and they were trying to put it on Trump,” Moser told The Epoch Times, referring to Russian collusion allegations and attempts to impeach Trump.

“I don’t like his tweets. I don’t like some of the stuff he said,” Moser said of Trump. “But part of me wonders if he says that just to get people going. … I mean, he is kind of a manipulator of people.”

Weigel thinks Trump uses his tweets to distract the media so he can focus on doing real work.

“He gets up in the morning, thinks [of] three things to have the media talk about all day so they get off his case, and then he [goes to work],” Weigel said. “I’ve never seen a president ever do more things in one year than what most presidents have done in a four-year term.”

Like Weigel, Moser suffered years of losses amid low milk prices. He was among the many farmers who dumped milk when the pandemic hit, because many of their customers—such as businesses and restaurants—weren’t buying. He received federal aid.

“For what [Trump] has to fight against, I think he has accomplished a lot,” Moser said. “I don’t know how he puts up with all these fights and struggles he has in his way. Any other sane man would just walk away.”

Like Moser, Weigel identifies as independent, but a bit more on the Republican side. For much of his life, Weigel didn’t think about politics, and just focused on building the dairy farm he started with 50 cows in 1979. He cast his first vote in 1997, and it was for the Democratic Congressman Ron Kind.

Struggle of Small Farms

It was also around this time that small dairy farms began to see a downturn. Over the past 20 years, Weigel has seen more than 40 small dairy farms shut down on the south side of Platteville.

During the same period, Wisconsin as a whole, America’s dairyland, saw nearly half of its dairy farms closed for good. The trend is for large dairy farms to thrive while the small farms are squeezed out of business.

Weigel tried to go big, starting to buy more cows in 2000. He added cows and built a new barn every four years. When the milk price tanked in 2015, he stopped at about 400 cows.

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The last barn Tom Weigel built on his property before he stopped expanding his farm in 2015, in Platteville, Wis., on Sept. 21, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

He started borrowing money to cover the losses, until the dairy market got better this summer. He had almost exhausted his credit, and couldn’t sustain another blow. But now he’s breaking even.

His four siblings have quit dairy farming. His sons lost interest, too. “Why still milking cows?” they ask him.

“They kind of get in your blood,” Weigel said. Being a dairy farmer is just who he is.

Darin Von Ruden, another third-generation small-dairy farmer in Westby, Wisconsin, told The Epoch Times, “Small dairy farms are destroyed by corporate greed.”

Ruden said the Trump administration didn’t help them enough during the crisis, rather he made it worse for them by waging a trade war.

Ruden is president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union and a steering committee member for Rural America 2020, an organization that educates Americans on what it says are failed policies of the Trump administration. He said he’ll vote for Biden.

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Darin Von Ruden stands on his dairy farm in Westby, Wis. (Courtesy of Darin Von Ruden)

Ruden said Trump’s trade war added the last straw on the backs of many already struggling dairy farms. In 2019, Wisconsin lost 10 percent of its dairy farms, the largest annual drop on record.

In March 2018, Trump imposed tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, causing a rise in the cost of machinery for farmers. In retaliation, Mexico imposed 25 percent tariffs on U.S. cheese. In Wisconsin, roughly 90 percent of the milk is made into cheese, and Mexico is a huge customer.

The Trump administration helped farmers with financial aid amid the trade war, but Ruden said farmers didn’t like having to take handouts.

Ruden also opposed how Trump put pressure on Canada to change its supply management system to open up its dairy market for U.S. farmers. “We’ve got to look at how each country can benefit from the other country versus trying to tear the other countries down.”

He likes the Canadian system, which allows farmers to have a bigger say in setting production volume and prices for dairy products. He said one major cause of low milk prices is that U.S. farmers are all producing milk to the best of their ability without many controls on price and volume.

Moser also likes the Canadian system. In Canada, a small dairy farm like his could support three families, he said. “I’m glad they stuck to their guns and didn’t [dismantle the system].”

In 2019, Moser didn’t have enough money to buy feed, so he sold 40 cows at $1,350 each, almost a third of the price he can get when times are good. Now his herd is down to 40 cows. He borrowed money to cover the losses amid the milk price crisis, and he is now $150,000 more in debt.

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Dairy farmer Cary Moser can’t afford to hire workers on his farm, so he runs it himself; but his grandson helps him after school each day. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

As for the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), the new trade deal that opened up a portion of the Canada market to U.S. dairy farmers, Moser doubts it means much for dairy farmers like him. “The trade with Canada, I don’t think was ever major enough to make a big difference,” he said. “I think trade with Mexico getting back to where it was will help a lot.”

Like the dairy farmers, James Leverich, a corn and soybean farmer, suffered losses in the trade wars. But he has a different take on the losses than Ruden.

Sacrifices in a War

Leverich farms around 1,000 acres in Sparta, Wisconsin, that have been in his family for five generations. He spoke with The Epoch Times on his farm after he readied the machinery for harvesting on Sept. 21.

In July 2018, a tit-for-tat trade war between the United States and China began, with tariffs imposed on billions of goods exchanged between the two countries. China’s tariffs particularly focused on U.S. farm exports, such as soybeans and grain sorghum.

But Leverich said his worst years have been caused by Mother Nature, not the trade war. And he compared his losses during the trade war to that of a soldier: “I sacrifice a little bit, just like a soldier does, for the good of the country.”

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James Leverich stands in front of grain bins he built with his own hands on his farm in Sparta, Wis., on Sept. 17, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

“I can withstand some economic challenges as a person if it’s good for the country as a whole over time.”

“Voters shouldn’t focus on whether they like Trump or not. They should be focused on what they want the country to be in 10 years or 15 years,” Leverich said.

Leverich thinks trade with China has cost many jobs in the United States, and Trump waged the trade war to level the playing field for the American people.

“I just want all countries to have fair trade deals with each other,” Leverich said. “That’s more important to me than what I make per bushel of corn.”

The Chinese communist regime is a true threat to U.S. interests, Leverich said. “They really want to be powerful just like the Soviet Union did.”

Leverich identified himself as an independent, but more conservative. “I vote for the best candidate,” he said. “I don’t think we should vote partisan.” He will vote for Trump.

He is also a retired professor from the University of Wisconsin–Extension; he taught farmers about new farming techniques. He also did research in soil management, working with the U.S. government.

Agricultural and Environmental Regulations

“[The government] won’t let us do research,” Leverich said. “They were so hung up in their regulations that they couldn’t see out of their problems.” He said farmers need research to be better farmers, but the government agencies have been a barrier to progress in many cases.

“A farmer is a caretaker of the land,” Leverich said. “A farmer knows how to take care of the land and pass it onto the next generation.” He thinks decision makers who make regulations behind desks in Washington often don’t understand farmers.

Weigel, the small-dairy farmer in Platteville, agreed. He is especially bothered by the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal program that requires transportation fuels sold in the United States to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuel.

Weigel said the fuel doesn’t last long enough, and ruins the engines of his machinery, which means he needs to pay more on fuel and maintenance every year.

“But we don’t get paid anything more for our products,” Weigel said. “People in New York are talking about eliminating fossil fuels. I just laughed. Well, you’d better start planning on paying about three times more for your food.

“The farmers cannot survive on what these prices are. Cannot do it.”

As of Sept. 6, the Trump administration had repealed 16 environmental regulations, according to the deregulation tracker by The Brookings Institution.

Across the road from Weigel, Tranel said he also doesn’t think highly of renewable fuel, but for a different reason. To him, renewable fuel, such as ethanol, is expensive to make and heavily subsidized by the government, which creates a false economy and won’t last forever.

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A view on Myron Tranel’s farm in Platteville, Wis., on Sept. 21, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

He thinks the future energy is in solar and other such power sources. Solar panels have provided electricity in his house and powered the water pump on his farm for five years.

“The only thing the solar doesn’t do is dry the corn. It does everything,” Tranel said.

Although Tranel and Weigel have differences in opinion, they do get along and stop by each other’s houses for a chat now and then.