NASHVILLE — More than five hours before President Donald Trump was scheduled to speak at the American Farm Bureau Convention in Nashville on Monday, a long line snaked over the footbridges and through the artificial island at the theme park-like Opryland Resort. The president was expected to address the convention on his way to Atlanta for the College Football Playoff National Championship.
A few MAGA hats were visible in the crowd, but they seemed to be outnumbered by “I support NAFTA” pins and Georgia football fan gear. In the days leading up to the speech, convention attendees expressed hope that the president would offer reassurance on topics of concern, including NAFTA negotiations and immigration. They seemed a little less focused on how the upcoming infrastructure bill might affect rural America.
President Trump opened his speech with a joke about the size of the crowd, referring to convention attendees as “our people.” He then mentioned his tax bill, trumpeting gains for farmers and small businesses, adding that “If the Democrats ever had the chance, the first thing they would do is get rid of it and raise up your taxes, sometimes by 40, 50, 60 percent higher than you’re paying right now. We can’t have that.”
The president then meandered through some of his favorite talking points, including the number of electoral college votes he won last November, his planned wall on the border with Mexico, respecting the American flag, and the “fake news media.”
He also called out some of the American Farm Bureau’s pet issues: the Waters of the United States rule (WOTUS), which is administration is in the process of rolling back, and the estate tax. He received a standing ovation when he mentioned the latter.
On trade, Trump reassured listeners that he’s negotiating a “better deal” for farmers. He also said they could count on passage of the farm bill “on time—including crop insurance—unless you don’t want me to.” Following the speech, several farmers and business owners I talked to said they were encouraged by his words.
“I feel like President Trump hit every emotional hot button from a positive standpoint for us in agriculture,” said Joe Newland, an agricultural businessman from Kansas. “I thought he played very well to the audience he was addressing,” agreed Doug Zillinger, a former agricultural educator from Kansas.
The president also signed two executive orders aimed at improving access to broadband internet in rural communities. “Make sure you look up @realDonaldTrump,” he joked when he made the announcement. The orders, titled “Streamlining and Expediting Requests to Locate Broadband Facilities in Rural America” and “Supporting Broadband Tower Facilities in Rural America,” resulted from recommendations made by the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, which was established by executive order last April.
The task force published over a hundred recommendations for improving life in rural America in its October 2017 report. The recommendations fall under five main categories including e-connectivity, quality of life, rural workforce, technology, and economic development—issues critical to farmers hoping to stay competitive in, as the report, calls it: “the information-driven global economy.”
“We are so excited about the executive order to bring broadband access to rural America,” said farmer and chair of the Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee Kalena Bruce in a text message to me shortly after the speech. Bert Egging, a retired farmer from Indiana, said that access to broadband was one of the biggest challenges farmers still face.
Earlier in the day, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue addressed the crowd, acknowledging the NAFTA-shaped elephant in the room at the start of his talk. “I want you to know that I have great faith in President Trump’s skills as a negotiator, and I’m quite confident that he will strike the best deal possible for the United States, and that we will have a fair NAFTA deal that works well for our economy,” he said. But he also urged listeners to pressure Canada’s Minister of Agriculture Lawrence MacAulay, who was also in attendance, to “engage in meaningful conversation.”
Farmers for Free Trade, an interest group that has been endorsed by the American Farm Bureau, emphasized in a press release that any economic tailwinds generated by regulatory reform or the tax bill would be dwarfed by a withdrawl from NAFTA. “The quickest way to reverse any regulatory or tax benefits targeted toward rural America would be to withdraw from NAFTA,” wrote co-chairs Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) and former Republican Senator from Indiana, Richard Lugar. “In Mexico alone, our chicken exports would see a 75% tax, pork would be taxed at 10%, and beef taxes would rise to 25%. Taking withdrawal off the table is the only way to provide American farmers and ranchers with the certainty they deserve.”
Though attendees seemed reassured that trade deals would go their way in the aftermath of the speech, Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas issued a press release directly after the speech. The header: “Keep conveying to POTUS the the importance of NAFTA.”