President Donald Trump assured farmers struggling through a prolonged economic slump that better times are ahead for U.S. agriculture because of his efforts to lower trade barriers to American exports and roll back regulations. 

“The great harvest is yet to come,” he said in his second, warmly received appearance in as many years to the American Farm Bureau Federation, this time on the group's 100th anniversary. 

The hour-long speech in New Orleans was dominated by a lengthy defense of his battle with congressional Democrats over building the U.S.-Mexico border wall, an impasse that has kept much of the government, including the departments of Agriculture and Interior, shut down since Dec. 21. 

“When it comes to keeping the American people safe, I will never, never back down,” said Trump, whose remarks on the wall were met with applause several times by the crowd of about 6,000 Farm Bureau members. 

He said congressional Democrats were refusing to fund the wall only because they wanted to prevent him from fulfilling a signature pledge from the 2016 campaign. At one point, he brought to the podium an Arizona rancher, Jim Chilton, whose land along the Mexican border is being used as a crossing point for drug traffickers who were stymied by the wall in California. 

“Mr. President, we need that wall,” Chilton said to applause. “I would say we need a wall all around, the length of the border. We’ve got to stop the drug packers from bringing drugs in to poison our people.”

And then, in a pointed attack on Congressional Democrats, Chilton offered to tell House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that “walls are not immoral.”

“I’ve traveled around the world. The biggest wall I’ve ever seen is around the Vatican. You can’t tell me the Pope and priests are immoral. They have a wall. Why can’t we?”

Trump’s speech prompted the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer from New York, to respond with a few tweets of his own.

“President @realDonaldTrump is speaking to farmers in Louisiana. But @USDA can’t pay out promised aid during the #TrumpShutdown. They can’t implement the new provisions in the Farm Bill. Farmers can’t get loans.

“Mr. President: If you want to help farmers, re-open the government,” Schumer tweeted.

Trump didn’t mention the impact the shutdown was having on farmers. USDA has halted the processing of loans and trade assistance payments. But in a line that drew one of several standing ovations, he promised that he would increase farmers’ access to foreign workers.

"You need people to help you with the farms. I’m going to make it easier for them to come in and work the farms,” he said. 

He didn’t say how that would happen. His administration is working on some proposals to streamline the H-2A visa program, but the changes are not expected to make a major change in the number of available workers or address demands for year-round foreign labor. H-2A is limited by law to seasonal labor needs. 

The president predicted that Congress would eventually approve the revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement that his administration negotiated with Mexico and Canada. Although there is concern that House Democrats could block the deal to prevent Trump from claiming a victory, Trump said it would be politically hard for lawmakers to kill the deal. “I hear it’s in very good shape,” he said. 

Trump cited Farm Bureau members from Wisconsin, dairy producers who would directly benefit from Canada’s agreement to ease its barriers to U.S. milk exports. 

He expressed confidence that his ongoing dispute with China, which has resulted in retaliatory tariffs against soybeans, sorghum and other commodities, ultimately would result in increased trade for U.S. farmers. He noted that his effort to prevent Chinese intellectual property could protect U.S. agricultural biotechnology companies. “Your secrets were being stolen by China and, in all fairness, other countries,” Trump said. 

He made no mention of lifting the steel and aluminum tariffs that remain on Mexico and Canada and that have resulted in tariffs on pork and other U.S. commodities. 

He compared his trade policy with the Louisiana Purchase – Thomas Jefferson’s acquisition of a vast region 828,000 square miles in size that included New Orleans – calling it the “greatest farm country on God’s earth.”

“The tough choices we make now reap rewards for centuries to come,” Trump said. 

Trump also touted last month's enactment of a new farm bill as well as his administration’s effort to replace the Obama-era “waters of the United States” rule that expanded the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers announced a proposed new rule last month that should significantly scale back the law's reach with regard to wetlands and ephemeral streams. 

“We’re going to get the government off your back so you can do what you love,” Trump said. 

Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, said afterward that he was surprised that Trump spent as much time as he did talking about the wall and border security. But Hurst said that Trump “hit all the right notes” on agricultural issues. 

A former president of the California Farm Bureau, Paul Wenger, said Trump showed that he cares about farmers and their concerns. “He respects agriculture and what they do,” Wenger said. 

Wenger also suggested farmers would stick with Trump despite the impact the trade wars are having on U.S. commodity markets. “The media is saying … that he’s hurting his ag base, the people who helped get him elected. We’re in it for the long haul.”

AFBF President Zippy Duvall seemed to agree with that assessment, but said opinions differ according to how farm families are being impacted by the economics of the trade war. In an interview after the president spoke, Agri-Pulse asked Duvall about how strongly his membership continued to support Trump, given the trade wars and lower commodity prices.

"Our people are still standing with this president, as evidenced to me by my conversations with them. The ones that aren’t comes right down to an economic situation on an individual farm. If I’m really, really struggling and fixing to lose my farm, I’m not supportive," Duvall explained. "But if I can handle a little bit longer fight, I know that the issues are out there that need to be fixed and I’m willing to give him a bit longer."

Duvall says the president "knows he’s under a timeline with us, that the clock’s ticking and if something doesn’t move pretty quick that he probably would start losing some support. But right now they are hanging tough with him."

How long will that support last as we move into 2019?

"Who knows how long? I can’t guess," Duvall said. "I would have already thought that he would be losing some support but he hasn’t. If anything, it seems to be stronger.

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