WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump tenaciously courted farmers and ranchers with an anti-regulatory agenda and a confrontational trade approach that opened some markets.
But he also relied on billions in federal aid to compensate them for retaliatory tariffs and a pandemic that took a deep gouge out of the economy.
Despite the mixed performance, Trump's policies on trade, regulation and other areas maintained his popularity in rural and farm communities, winning their support in the Nov. 3 election.
Joe Biden nevertheless has a chance to do as president what he didn't manage as a candidate: make inroads by distinguishing his performance from Trump's in ways that are important to a rural constituency. He could, for example, give robust government backing to biofuels, an area where Trump waffled. Biden could deliver some agriculture sales abroad, reversing setbacks that followed Trump's trade wars and the economic slowdown from the pandemic.
More treacherous for Biden may be regulation, especially on the environment and climate change, issues that are important for his Democratic Party but also ones in which solutions could be disruptive to agriculture. Trump repealed the Obama administration's 2015 regulation known as Waters of the United States, which expanded federal review of waters. The Obama rule sparked opposition from the American Farm Bureau Federation, which said it would allow the EPA to interfere with how farmers use their land.
Farmers and ranchers are waiting to see Biden's regulatory agenda in the Agriculture Department, the EPA and the Interior Department.
Trump enjoyed a close relationship with farmers. He spoke to thousands of cheering members of the Farm Bureau at the organization's annual January convention in 2018, 2019 and 2020. That attention helped Trump get praise and support for coming to agriculture's aid even when his policies created the need for the aid.
"President-elect Biden will set himself up well if he takes a chapter out of that playbook of giving attention to farmers while also creating a steady hand to bring some stability back to the markets, bringing some clarity of direction on climate change and farmers' role in that," National Farmers Union president Rob Larew said.
Larew said a Biden administration should engage swaths of agriculture — conventional, organic, small, large, specialty crop growers, livestock producers — as it develops policies.
"What is critical for the White House is that farmers have a key role. There are lots of different styles of agriculture that need to be part of the dialogue," Larew said.