US farmers turn towards Biden over Trump’s past agricultural policies

<span>Joe Biden speaks during a visit to O'Connor Farms on 11 May 2022 in Kankakee, Illinois.</span><span>Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP</span>
Joe Biden speaks during a visit to O'Connor Farms on 11 May 2022 in Kankakee, Illinois.Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

For two decades, Christopher Gibbs, a row crop and cattle farmer in Shelby county, Ohio, was an ardent Republican party member.

He served as chair of his county’s Republican party branch for seven years and when Donald Trump became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016, Gibbs, like more than 80% of Shelby county voters, fell in line.

But in 2018, everything changed.

Watching Trump stand alongside Vladimir Putin at a summit in Helsinki, in which the president sided with his Russian counterpart against US law enforcement agencies that had indicted Russian intelligence officers for interfering in the US election in 2016, Gibbs was aghast.

Then, not long after, Trump began trade tariffs against many of the US’s international allies.

“Our allies retaliated by going after our soft underbelly: our agriculture,” Gibbs says. “When China retaliated by no longer taking our soybeans, I lost 20% of the value of my crop overnight.”

Gibbs is among a small but perhaps growing group of US farmers who fear that Trump’s threats of renewed trade wars and immigrant deportations could ruin their businesses should he prevail in the November presidential election.

Today, Gibbs is a fervent member of the Democratic party and last year went as far as becoming the chair of his county’s branch.

“In the Democratic party, not everybody gets their way, but everybody gets a voice,” says Gibbs. “In the Republican party, there’s just one voice.”

In important farming states such as Iowa, debates have raged over how another Trump presidency could cost farmers dearly. During Trump’s previous tariff campaign that began in 2018, many farmers in Michigan, an election swing state, railed against the former president’s actions.

Back then, the Trump administration attempted to ease the financial pain it inflicted upon the agriculture community and ensure farmers continue to vote for him by paying out $52bn in subsidies in 2020 alone.

On the campaign trail this year, Trump falsely claimed $28bn was extracted from China, when, in fact, the direct payments to farmers came from the US government via taxpayer money.

While Joe Biden remains unpopular with farmers – Gibbs is among only 12% of US farmers who typically vote for candidates of the Democratic party – results from a host of 2022 midterm races suggest that at the state and local level, support for Democratic party candidates in rural America may be rebounding.

Moderate Democrats in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona, as well as Gibbs’ Ohio outperformed Biden’s 2020 presidential election figures by as much as 15%, according to analysis by Third Way, a pro-Democratic party thinktank.

Research shows that under the Biden administration, farming incomes have increased significantly, in large part due to government assistance and a post-pandemic bump in demand for agricultural products. What’s more, polls suggest a large number of rural Americans may vote for third-party or write-in candidates in November, a prospect that would hurt Trump more than Biden.

Gibbs isn’t alone.

Steve Held, whose family has ranched in eastern Montana since the 1800s, says he’s always considered himself an independent, voting for Republican and Democrat candidates in state and presidential elections all his life.

In recent years, however, his worldview has changed.

“There was only one tornado [in Montana] that I was ever aware of growing up. Recently there was several in one day,” he says. “[Climate change] is real, and people see it, but the propaganda has them not wanting to admit the truth.”

This year, Held ran as a Democrat for a seat in eastern Montana, finishing second in a primary held on 4 June.

“The dysfunction in the Republican party now has gone beyond the pale. Our current representative [Republican Matt Rosendale] wouldn’t sign the proposed farm bill, which … supports programs so that families can make a living on the farms and ranches in Montana.”

A former actor, Held entered politics in large part because of the climate crisis. “I sat in roomfuls of people who said they voted Republican their whole lives but that they were going to vote for me,” says Held.

Still, Trump and other Republican candidates are expected to win rural counties handily across a slate of elections in November, and the challenges facing Democrats in rural America remain large.

“Farmers and rural Americans are values voters,” says Gibbs, who recalls losing around 80% of his friends and colleagues after he spoke out against Trump. “They will continue to vote against their own interests, particularly in agriculture, because it’s the Republicans who speak to their value systems.”

He says that Democrats have let themselves be reframed as something that doesn’t match the midwestern value set, such as universally supporting abortion, when “that’s never what they are for”.

For Gibbs, the Democratic party could forge inroads with farmers and rural Americans, but to do so would require a recalculation. “The progressive left has had the microphone for too long,” he says.

He says he doesn’t expect to see much change in terms of who farmers and rural Americans vote for in November’s election, but that’s not his main focus. He sees a chance of change further in the future.

“What we’re doing here now,” he adds, “is building for [elections in] 2028, 2032.”