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Voices of the Voters: Farmers Weigh Trade, Land Rights and Consumer and Environmental Protections

photo of Ohio farmers

One in seven Ohioans is connected to the state’s largest industry: agriculture. And they're among the voters trying to sort through the trade, business and environmental positions of the presidential candidates.

An 80-acre patch of land in western Ohio becomes a farmers’ fair every September, with 140,000 visitors coming to the Farm Science Review near London. They wander through rows and rows of vendor booths and tents in the summer heat, seeing and hearing about the latest in farming equipment, technology, products, services and educational programs.

'Least of the worst'
And this year, they were also talking about politics – and their frustrations with the major-party candidates for president. Grain farmer Don Jackson is from Waynesville in southwest Ohio, and said he’s voting for what he called “the least of the worst."

“We don’t have a real good choice this year, do we? I’m a Republican, but I just have to shut my eyes this year and vote, I guess,” Jackson said.

Hog farmer Dave Kreis is from Zanesville, and said he’s leaning toward Trump.  

“I say that as a farmer, as a businessman, as an individual.”

Is there anything particular that he likes about Trump?

“He wants to make our country strong again, support the military and fight against the terrorists,” Kreis said.

It’s hard to find a farmer who’s not voting Republican this year – and most years. But they’re out there.

Dean McIlvaine is an organic grain and beef farmer in West Salem in Wayne County, and he’s voting for Clinton.

'What we don't want to do is shoot ourselves in the foot when we're talking about trade agreements.'

“Farmers traditionally have been more conservative. But the more progressive farmers, I believe are more Democratic and supportive of more progressive platforms, which Hillary has supported,” McIlvaine said.

Trade matters
There are two main groups that speak for Ohio’s farmers and agricultural industry, The larger is the Ohio Farm Bureau with 200,000 members, and 60,000 of them are farmers.

Adam Sharp is the executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, which does not endorse presidential campaigns. Sharp says one of the biggest issues for farmers is trade, since one-in-three rows of corn and soybeans grown in Ohio are exported.

“There’s a number of sectors out there that struggle with competition with China and we buy a lot more products than we sell to them. But in the agricultural world it’s the opposite,” said Sharp. “What we don’t want to do is shoot ourselves in the foot when we’re talking about trade agreements. Many of these agreements have been working really well.”

Tariffs and consequences
The Farm Bureau is seen as much more conservative than the smaller Ohio Farmers Union, which represents 4,000 farmers and consumers and tends to have a more progressive outlook.

Joe Logan is the president of the Ohio Farmers Union and a farmer himself, in Trumbull County. He agrees that trade is a huge issue, especially with Trump talking about a 25 percent tariff or more on all Chinese imports.  

“Tariff is, of course, the most blunt instrument of trade reconciliation. I I think farmers think that there’s something wrong with our trade status and our trade agreements currently, but a tariff is probably not the way to go,” Logan said.

They agree that immigration is another big issue. Sharp at the Farm Bureau says farmers are focused on taxes, property rights, water quality regulations and food safety.

Logan at the Farmers Union agrees on water and food safety, saying it’s a component of national security, but also climate change.  

Back at the Farm Science Review, for every person who wanted to say who they’d vote for, someone else didn’t. Nancy Carter and Candy Bostick are friends from Woodstock in western Ohio, and joked that they’d write in their own names for president – or, Carter said, vote for a third-party candidate.

“My husband says, you’re just going to throw your vote away. Well, I’m going to throw it away either way you look at it, so I may as well throw it at something I might have a chance….”

“What makes a difference really?” Bostick asked.

Several other people, perhaps in keeping with the famous independent farmers’ streak, refused to disclose who they’ll vote for.

Karen is a lifelong Ohioan who has served as news director at WCBE-FM, assignment editor/overnight anchor at WBNS-TV, and afternoon drive anchor/assignment editor in WTAM-AM in Cleveland. In addition to her daily reporting for Ohio’s public radio stations, she’s reported for NPR, the BBC, ABC Radio News and other news outlets. She hosts and produces the Statehouse News Bureau’s weekly TV show “The State of Ohio”, which airs on PBS stations statewide. She’s also a frequent guest on WOSU TV’s “Columbus on the Record”, a regular panelist on “The Sound of Ideas” on ideastream in Cleveland, appeared on the inaugural edition of “Face the State” on WBNS-TV and occasionally reports for “PBS Newshour”. She’s often called to moderate debates, including the Columbus Metropolitan Club’s Issue 3/legal marijuana debate and its pre-primary mayoral debate, and the City Club of Cleveland’s US Senate debate in 2012.