Donald Trump is borrowing billions to provide emergency aid to shore up hard-pressed farmers who are suffering because of the US President’s decision to start an international trade war, writes Susan Dalgety
There are two million farms in America and a lot of them are in Wisconsin – 77,000, according to the state’s Farm Bureau.
Many of them are dairy farms, contributing $20 billion a year to the economy, and giving the Midwest state its nickname of America’s Dairyland.
“Cheese is the state’s history, its pride, its self-deprecating, sometimes goofy cheesehead approach to life,” according to the New York Times, which goes some way to explaining one of the state’s most popular dishes.
“You have to try the cheese curds,” urged a friend on Facebook from his West Lothian home. He had spent some time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was a big fan of the local dish, deep fried. Cheese curds are lumps of curdled milk. I was not going to try them, deep-fried or raw.
Driving through Wisconsin is like stepping back in time. Road signs warn of horse and carts. Amish farmers in straw hats and their wives in bonnets and long skirts wave cheerfully as they pass us, slowly, on their way into town.
“That’s a Wisconsin traffic jam,” laughed the barman in Cashton when we stopped for lunch.
Black and white Friesian cows crowd together on fields, the grass parched yellow by the summer sun. Shiny steel corn mills pepper the horizon and big green tractors litter the roadsides. It is a rural idyll.
But at farm kitchen tables across Wisconsin, families are holding desperate conversations about their future.
Most of America’s farms are family owned – 99 per cent says the national Farm Bureau – and in Wisconsin many of these small businesses are struggling to survive.
A sharp and sustained drop in milk prices saw Wisconsin lose 500 dairy farms in 2017, and by April this year another 150 had quit milking cows. The number of dairy farms has dropped by a fifth in five short years.
One dairy farmer, speaking to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, warns that small family farms could all but disappear, and with them, a way of life that has defined Wisconsin since the first German and Dutch farmers settled here.
“Drive around Wisconsin and you will see empty barns all over,” says Elizabeth Schlintz. “Unless something is done they will be a thing of the past within the next few years.”
When farms go out of business, so does the supply chain that keeps rural communities alive. Tractor dealerships close. Shops fail. Bars lie empty, except on a Saturday night. Young people flee to the cities of Madison and Milwaukee, or even out of state.
Eventually towns and villages die or become lifeless heritage attractions for tourists passing through.
And there is a fresh threat to Wisconsin farmers on the horizon. It comes directly from the executive pen of the man many of them voted for in 2016.
Trump’s tariffs, designed he says to stop America “being robbed”, have precipitated a trade war with the USA’s major partners, such as the EU, Mexico and China.
We may end up paying more for Levi’s and Jack Daniels, but the biggest losers could be America’s farmers.
In recent weeks the President’s crude export policy has led to a calamitous slump in cheese and butter prices.
Pete Hardin, publisher of Milkweed, a Wisconsin dairy industry publication, warns that Trump’s tariffs could destroy farmers.
“We are looking at a short-term washout of 20 per cent of Wisconsin dairy farm milk income on a monthly basis. That’s how dangerous this mess is,” Hardin said.
“However you want to extrapolate the wider economic impact of a $75 million a month drop in Wisconsin dairy farm revenue, it’s painful.”
Even the tone-deaf Trump has recognised how destructive tariffs could be for America’s rural community, and, perhaps more urgently, the Republican Party’s chances in November’s mid-term elections.
In a desperate attempt to assuage his rural heartlands, he has just announced a $12 billion emergency aid package for farmers using, ironically, a funding device left over from the Great Depression of the 1930s which allows the government to borrow money without going through Congress.
But will the promise of generous subsidies be enough to stem the Democrat blue wave that threatens to engulf the GOP in 88 days?
The Republican Party was founded in Wisconsin in 1854, and its beleaguered dairy farmers could be key to its future, just as they were in 2016.
Trump’s narrow win here destroyed a complacent Hillary Clinton, who thought she had Wisconsin in the bag, and the ten electoral college votes he picked up helped propel him into the White House.
He and his party need to pull off another spectacular victory if they are to have any hope of holding on to the House of Representatives, and so protect the president from impeachment.
They won’t get any succour from Randy Voss, a retired dairy farmer we met outside Madison, the state capital.
He used to run a small dairy farm. “Only forty cows,” he smiled. “Our family have always been farmers. That’s what they did in Friesland in Holland, so when my grandparents came here, they carried on. But it’s hard now.
“We have a stomach virus in this country. And we need to get rid of him, before he infects all of us, and ruins our country.”
He leant forward, and in a quiet voice, said, “You know, my father, who is an old man, has a poster of Barack Obama above his pool table. This is who we are.”
As the farmers of Wisconsin gather this weekend for their annual State Fair in West Allis, no doubt the talk in the bars will turn to milk prices, tariffs and Trump.
The president, deep in his New Jersey bunker where he is spending his summer vacation, must be hoping that they will keep faith with him, even as their earnings nosedive.
“Just be a little patient,” he pleaded with farmers last month.
And earlier this week he tweeted, hysterically, “... I LOVE the people, & they certainly seem to like the job I’m doing.
“If I find the time, in between China, Iran, the Economy, and much more, which I must, we will have a giant Red Wave!”
Meanwhile, Robert Mueller, silently, continues his special investigation. Forget the blue wave, or even Donald’s Red one. There could be a tsunami coming.