BLOOMER, Wis. — Marc Boettcher’s day started before dawn, when he fired up the hammer mill that ground up corn for a mixture he fed to the steers in his barn.
There was an empty room where he used to milk dairy cows until he sold them a couple of years back, but on a cold morning this summer, much of the barn was full of cattle — curious, anxious, and endearingly weird — who jostled one another to get a look at him. One left him a gift of manure in the drinking trough. Another managed to climb into the manger and stayed there, blinking, like that was the perfect spot.
“Now we got a little battle, to try to get him out,” said Boettcher, a fourth-generation farmer, rolling his eyes.
He is used to the uncertainty of farming. He knows how a single snowstorm, a wet spring, or a fire at a processing plant hundreds of miles away can hold him back. He believes climate change has made the weather vacillate more intensely. And now there is another human-made factor that has his long-struggling industry shuddering: President Trump’s trade disputes.
“There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it, I’ve lost money,” said Boettcher, as the sun rose over a lush carpet of soybeans in one of his fields. Prices were already low and the retaliatory tariffs that China and other nations have placed on US agriculture, he said, “are just another thing to kind of hold it, or squash it, or keep it down.”
Trump’s promise to restore US trade dominance won him deep support in farm country, which helped him secure his narrow victory in Wisconsin in 2016. As the trade skirmishes Trump has triggered have hurt farmers directly, the president’s message has been simple: Trust me, it will all pay off.
They are still waiting. But the wave of new and steeper tariffs has yet to fray many farmers’ faith in a president who promised to even the playing field.
Boettcher, who voted twice for Barack Obama, cast his ballot for Trump and his promise to end same-old-same-old politics. So far, Boettcher said, he feels like his losses are a worthy sacrifice.
“They are a small part of what we probably need to do, as America, to maintain the lifestyle we’ve had,” he said.
But he acknowledged his patience for the tariffs will not last forever.
“It needs to be on a timeline,” Boettcher said. “That, in my estimation or my opinion, would be the worst-case scenario, if it just continuously goes on and on.”
It has been a dastardly year for Wisconsin farmers: 718 dairy farms have closed since January, and those who grow commodity crops like corn or soybeans, as Boettcher does, are suffering, too. The reasons are complex, but farmers and economists say long-running problems have been exacerbated by Trump’s trade wars, which have winnowed global markets for the agricultural products that come from heartland towns like this one in northwestern Wisconsin.
Trump has disrupted relationships with reliable American trading partners like Canada and Mexico while imposing steep tariffs on Chinese goods. Those nations fought back with tariffs of their own on US imports, particularly soybeans and other agricultural products.
Agricultural exports to China tumbled from about $19.5 billion in 2017 to $9.1 billion last year, according to the American Farm Bureau, and dropped another $1.3 billion in the first half of this year. Those lost sales have had bruising effects on farmers’ income. Wisconsin experienced more farm bankruptcies between July 2018 and June 2019 than any other state.
As the 2020 election approaches, though, many farmers still support the president. A survey of 1,138 farmers in September by the Farm Journal found 76 percent of them either strongly or somewhat approve of Trump’s presidency, even though his policies have hurt their pocketbooks directly.
But there are signs that some farmers are running out of patience, even though the president said earlier this year that his administration would make sure “it’s a good time to be a farmer.”
When Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue visited Minnesota in August, some of the farmers began to unload. “Things are going downhill, and downhill very quickly,” said Brian Thalmann, the past president of the Minnesota Corn Growers’ Association.
Other policies in Washington have further stoked the frustration, like the Environmental Protection Agency exempting some refineries from requirements that they blend ethanol into their oil.
The Trump administration has tried to offset the damage from the trade disputes, approving some $28 billion in aid to bail out farmers, but to some, it is little more than a Band-Aid.
“I don’t know what socialism is if it’s not receiving a check from the government,” said Les Danielson, 49, who lives in Cadott, another farming community about 30 minutes away from Bloomer, and grows corn and soybeans. He does not support Trump or his tariffs, and he believes more farmers will see things his way as the trade wars drag on.
“We’re losing all this money,” he said, “and we’re just supposed to like, be patriotic?”
Doug Danielson, Les’s older brother, was in his tractor under a wide blue summer sky, tilling fallow soil dotted with periwinkle flowers and the odd sandhill crane, preparing to seed it with clover and alfalfa for his cows.
The field in Cadott tells the story of how things have been going here lately. It was owned by a dairy farmer who went out of business, and then rented to a tenant who couldn’t plant because the spring was too wet.
Now Danielson, a dairy farmer since the 1980s, was giving it a go. He has 440 cows, lofty barns, and a milking parlor that runs practically around the clock. But these days, after years of crushingly low milk prices that have driven dairy into a crisis, it is harder and harder to hold on, and he said he was living off his equity.
“I thought I was pretty good at it,” Danielson said, with a hint of self-deprecation, “and I’m figuring out that I’m not as good as I thought.”
Like his brother, Danielson did not vote for Trump. He knows the dairy crisis predates this presidency, but he believes American farmers need to grow the market for their milk, and he wants the tariffs gone.
There is nothing Danielson wants more than for his son to farm with him, but a tear rolled down his cheek as he thought about how that would never make financial sense.
“In my family,” he said, “I will be the last generation farming.”
Recently, milk prices have picked back up, but not enough to undo years of damage. The economic struggles of recent years are evident everywhere around Cadott if you know where to look. The grocery stores are gone, and a space that used to hold a tractor dealership is hollow. As George Polzin, another dairy farmer who has branched out into cow genetics and other products, drove through town, he pointed out the empty barns that dot the town where his family has farmed for generations.
“There’s an almost-new empty barn standing down there. They lost it,” Polzin said, as he drove past a pristine red barn into town. “Farm right up here, fourth generation farm. . . . He sold out this spring. . . . Just wasn’t enough money to support the family.”
With so many farms for sale, more Amish families have moved into town, so horses and buggies are not an uncommon sight.
More recently, the tariffs have eaten into the profits of farmers still in business, which has dampened their ability to spend money in town.
“You don’t buy new equipment. You buy old equipment. You put off — I should shingle my barn. $17,000, I’m not going to spend that money now,” Les Danielson said.
Polzin, 64, knows the tariffs are not to blame for all of the woes here. But, he said, they were the last thing people needed.
“This is the first time in my life,” he said, “where I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”
Marc Boettcher, 51, comes from a sprawling farm family. His grandfather was farming in the area in the early 1900s, and Boettcher is one of 18 grandchildren — but of all of them, he is the only one left still farming.
He has watched the agricultural economy change around him. The big farms took over and smaller, family-run operations became less profitable. There used to be seven farmers with dairy cows nearby; now, there is only one.
“If things were just humming along,” Boettcher said, “Donald Trump would have never become president.”
Chippewa County, which contains Bloomer and Cadott, gave Trump a 19 percentage point victory in 2016 after backing Republican Mitt Romney over Obama in 2012 by just 160 votes.
Shifts like that helped power the president’s narrow victory over Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, which he won with a margin of fewer than 23,000 votes. Democrats and Republicans view Wisconsin as a crucial battleground in 2020, and polling suggests a close race, no matter who the Democrats choose as their nominee.
After Boettcher finished feeding his steers, around 7:15 that morning, he headed out for a different obligation: football practice at Bloomer High School, where he is an assistant defensive coach. He played running back and defensive back when he went there, when almost everyone on the team was a “farm kid.” Now, he said, most of the kids on the team are “city kids.” They still live out here, in rural Wisconsin, but they don’t farm.
Boettcher retains his athletic build. He and his wife, Diane, are deeply committed Catholics, and they have a set of 8-year-old twins as well as an older son, Cole, who is in the military. Boettcher hopes Cole will come home to run the farm someday.
Over breakfast — eggs, bacon, and another side of bacon — at the Main Street Cafe in town, Boettcher estimated he has lost about 15 percent of his income to tariffs, though he says it can be hard to disentangle the various factors that affect his income. It all hurts, but his farm can survive.
Boettcher knows he and the Danielsons disagree about Trump. But for now, Boettcher is willing to make a sacrifice for the hope that Trump’s trade wars eventually will put Wisconsin’s farms on better footing. His distrust over Washington, however, has grown in recent months, adding another uncertainty in his life: who he will back for president in 2020.
“I am 100 percent on the fence on who I am gonna vote for,” Boettcher said last week. “Anybody could sway me at this point. I am 100 percent teetering at the top.”