Judging merely by appearances, President Donald Trump’s speech to delegates at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 100th convention this week was a lot like his speeches to other groups.
He talked at length about what he sees as the need for a border wall, using arguments we all heard if we watched his prime-time address to the nation a week ago. The address before some 6,000 Farm Bureau members in New Orleans on Monday was almost boilerplate, to the extent that a Trump speech could be.
But at closer consideration, something rather remarkable was happening. The president was before a constituency that has been thrown into significant economic uncertainty by two of his policies: tariffs on steel and aluminum, which have sparked retaliation by China and others against American agricultural goods, and a partial federal government shutdown that has kept growers from accessing critical USDA programs and services.
Trump tends to let on like he assumes everyone in the hall supports everything he does, whether he believes it or not. But he had to know going in that this crowd had every reason to be skeptical. And while there were multiple ovations, what I observed in video footage of the speech and my own experience from decades of covering similar events tell me this audience was listening intently — and maybe a little quizzically — to the president’s every word and sending subtle messages with their applause.
Perhaps the loudest cheer erupted when Trump talked about eliminating a “record number of job-killing regulations.” But it seemed the most prolonged, heartfelt applause came when the president said he wanted to make it easier for immigrants to come legally to work. That’s not a position he’s always taken, but it’s important to agribusiness.
So, did Trump make a compelling case as to why farmers and ranchers should support a wall on the Mexican border?
He may have taken a step in that direction by introducing Arizona rancher Jim Chilton, whose ranch lies next to the border and has seen major drug traffickers run through. As Farm Progress’ Holly Spangler reports, Chilton was succinct from beneath his cowboy hat. “Mr. President, we need a wall. We need a wall all around, all the length of the border.”
I first became aware of the danger that border-area ranchers face in 2010, when 58-year-old Robert Krentz of Douglas, Ariz., was shot and killed while he was out checking water lines and fences on land his family had ranched for more than a century. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has been asking for improved border security ever since.
However, while many farmers and ranchers may support a barrier or a fairer trade deal with China in concept, they still need to be convinced these goals are worth the sacrifices they’ve been making in the last few months. In this respect, Trump still has some explaining to do.