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Commentary: 'Does Trump understand farming?'

Jonathan Knutson

The telephone call came from a farmer in his combine. He told me he'd enjoyed my most recent column, which looked at the economic challenges facing Upper Midwest farmers, and said he had a question for me.

He mentioned the crop he was harvesting and the price he'll receive for it. Then he asked, "Tell me — I really want to know — is there any way I can make money at that price?"

Well, I said, maybe with great yields and if you own the land (avoiding rental payments), you might have a crack at a small profit. Otherwise, nope, no way, not even close.

He agreed with that assessment and said, "I have another question. Do you think Trump understands farming?"

I said something about being a neutral journalist. I also said that since I've never met or talked with President Trump, I have no particular insight into the question.

The farmer pressed me again, this time asking for my opinion.

Well, I said as objectively as possible, Donald Trump's background and life experiences didn't prepare him to understand it. On the other hand, he was (and still is) a businessman; that may give him some empathy for the business side of farming.

But on balance, I said, no, I don't think Trump understands farming.

I'll add now, again trying to be objective, that Barack Obama and George W. Bush didn't have the background or life experiences, either. Nor did Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John McCain or John Kerry. (Al Gore, defeated by Bush in the 2000 presidential campaign, reportedly spent summers on the family farm in Tennessee when he was young; arguably that may have helped Gore understand farming.)

Personally, I'm not much concerned whether Trump (or any other president or presidential candidate) understands it. The job is so big and complicated that one person simply can't understand all the areas in which he or she will be required to make tough decisions.

What matters is whether Trump has selected advisors and officials who do understand agriculture. What matters is the quality of the advice they're giving him. What matters is whether he's listening — genuinely listening, with an open mind — to what they're saying.

Decide for yourself if those components are in place in the Trump administration.

Trump is a polarizing figure, our most love-him or hate-him president since Richard Nixon. The Fox News/Trump-is-a-genius crowd seems to think he can no wrong. The MSNBC/Trump-is-a-crazed-idiot crowd seems to think he can do nothing right. The rest of us, or at least those of us who prefer to think for ourselves, realize the truth is somewhere in between.

Does Trump understand farming? And more importantly, will Trump's policies, especially those involving trade, help or hurt agriculture? The Trump-is-a-genius partisans won't agree, but no one can credibly deny that his trade policies are risky and already have hurt U.S. agriculture, at least temporarily. Argue if you want that potential benefits justify his policies, but don't pretend there's no risk or pain.

One more that's undeniably true: a lot of agriculturalists, including the farmer who called me from his combine, question Trump's grasp of farming and ag policies. Given the pain they're already suffering and the risk of more to come, they have good reason to question it.