Farmers Are Courting Trump, But They Don't Speak For All Of Rural America : The Salt With Donald Trump's victory, rural America is enjoying some political prominence, and farmers are hoping to profit. But most rural Americans aren't farmers. Small towns have their own priorities.
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Farmers Are Courting Trump, But They Don't Speak For All Of Rural America

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Farmers Are Courting Trump, But They Don't Speak For All Of Rural America

Farmers Are Courting Trump, But They Don't Speak For All Of Rural America

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The day after Donald Trump won the presidency, the head of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Zippy Duvall, said this in a videotaped statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZIPPY DUVALL: Rural America turned out and made their voice heard in this election. Now it's time for our elected leaders to support rural America.

CORNISH: But who is rural America? NPR's Dan Charles went searching for an answer.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: I meet Kip Tom in the middle of the wide cornfields of northern Indiana in Kosciusko County. Trucks are dumping the last of this year's harvest into giant, steel silos.

KIP TOM: You know, we can run about a hundred semi loads a day through here.

CHARLES: Kip Tom's farm is huge, 20,000 acres scattered across seven counties, counties where 70 percent of the voters chose Donald Trump. And Kip Tom, who joined Trump's campaign as an adviser on agricultural policy, thinks Trump will listen to what farmers have to say.

TOM: I see Trump being good for agriculture, absolutely. I think he understands the economic activity that goes on in the center part of our country.

CHARLES: On some issues, Trump's been right in sync with the major farm groups. They both want less environmental regulation. Trump has promised to ditch a rule called Waters of the U.S., which defines which streams are covered by the Clean Water Act.

TOM: The Waters of the U.S. is an overreach by the federal government on our private property rights to come out here to tell us how to operate our farms.

CHARLES: But farm organizations want Trump to change his mind about some other things. Farmers generally want more free trade, for instance. And farm groups don't want the government to crack down on immigration. Dairy farmers and vegetable growers rely heavily on immigrant workers.

TOM: Until you walk a day with somebody who is a migrant that is willing to do the work that others turn their nose to, I think we have to have some passion for those people and try to find a way to citizenship for them.

CHARLES: Farmers are hoping they'll be able to take advantage of rural America's moment in the political sun. But the fact is they don't speak for all of rural America or even most of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

CHARLES: I drove half an hour south to the county seat of Kosciusko County, the town of Warsaw. Warsaw's doing better than a lot of rural towns. But it still worries about its future. Average incomes here have fallen below the national average. Poverty's been rising. The historic downtown with its century-old brick storefronts and grand county courthouse is eerily quiet most of the day. And the mayor of Warsaw, Joseph Thallemer, says the central question for his town is, do young people want to be here?

JOSEPH THALLEMER: Millennials - they go where they want to live and then decide where they're going to work.

CHARLES: It's not enough to get companies to move here to bring in jobs, he says. We have jobs in local factories that are waiting for people. And still, young people choose to move away to places that seem more exciting.

THALLEMER: We have plenty of opportunity. But we don't have 70-degree average temperatures. We don't have palm trees. We don't have oceans.

CHARLES: We need to find other ways to make this community special, he says - attractive. Now, Warsaw's economic future has very little to do with the farms that surround it. Farmers are not going to keep this town alive. There aren't nearly enough of them. According to the latest census of agriculture, there are just 497 people in all of Kosciusko County who say that farming is their principal occupation. That's out of a total population of 80,000.

Chuck Fluharty, who's president of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Iowa, which focuses on the economic health of rural communities, says small towns don't depend much on farmers anymore. But farmers really do need their rural towns.

CHUCK FLUHARTY: They're worrying about that car dealer. And they're worrying about that bank. And they're worrying about those small insurance companies. And they're hoping to God they don't lose their school.

CHARLES: What small-town America needs, basically, is more people like Parker Beauchamp. He's a young guy from the town of Wabash, an hour south of Warsaw, who went off to college but came back home to run the family insurance company and convinced his big-city wife to move there with him.

PARKER BEAUCHAMP: That was a major sales job - still making it, (laughter) still making it.

CHARLES: Beauchamp wouldn't have to be in Wabash. His company's competing for customers all over the country, not just in Indiana. And he's recruiting employees from all over, too. But he wants to be in his hometown. And he's thrown himself into building a Wabash that more people from Denver or Chicago could imagine moving to.

BEAUCHAMP: I mean, we just hustled. We did whatever that we could in order to get some energy into the downtown.

CHARLES: There's now art and entertainment in the center of Wabash, also a renovated historic hotel. Shops that were boarded up are open for business again. Government grants got some of this off the ground. But Chuck Fluharty from the Rural Policy Research Institute says rural communities per person don't get nearly as much federal economic development money as cities do. This is where farmers could help, he says. Farm organizations have political clout. They should be pushing for policies that help their small towns, not just their own farms. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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