President’s ‘America first’ position might have unexpected new losers, like dairy farmers

President’s ‘America first’ position might have unexpected new losers, like dairy farmers

I can no longer remember why it is that I was enrolled in Ferris Harrison’s Verona High School agriculture class back in the 1950s, given the fact that no real farmer would ever let me near a tractor, much less a cow.

The thing I most remember about the class is that Harrison insisted his real farm students make the effort to create large signs for their family homesteads.

“Your farm is a business and you should advertise it like a business,” he said.

To understand how prescient Harrison was, you have to recall that in the 1950s, family farms often consisted of 80 acres of land, a barn that needed painting and an old John Deere tractor and manure spreader.

You also have to recall, or learn for the first time, that in the popular mind, farming was a field young men went into when they weren’t smart enough to go to college. We didn’t think of farms as businesses. We thought of farms as farms.

Obviously, that was then and this is now. If you run a dairy farm today, you are likely to have assets — or debts — of $1 million or more, and a new John Deere tractor sells for more than the price of a modest house.

But, then as now, farming was a business. And a business needs a couple of things to prosper. One is a product and the other is a market.

Today, I make my living as a rural pastor and, as such, I spend a fair amount of time at potluck dinners and funeral luncheons, surrounded by farmers and small-business people who provide services to farmers.

What I hear these businesspeople talking about is the Canadian milk market.

A relatively small number of Wisconsin dairy farmers — I believe the number is 75 — sell their milk to Canadian cheese producers in the form of ultrafiltered milk.

I don’t know for sure what that is, but I do know that Canada is about to enact what amounts to a tariff on the Wisconsin milk product, and those farmers have until Monday to find new markets or they will have to sell their cows.

This is not President Trump’s fault. He, in fact, is trying to get Canada to drop its plans because, he says, Canada is being “unfair” to American farmers.

Perhaps so.

But what the situation does illustrate is that slogans like “America first,” and “buy American, hire American” sound really good until we realize that other countries may have similar ideas.

As it turns out, Canada also has farmers who would like better markets for their milk. Mexico not only produces low-cost goods that undercut American manufacturing but also buys a vast amount of American corn. Farmers in other countries also grow corn and would be happy to supply the Mexican market.

All this is vastly complicated. Push one place on the trade balloon and a bulge emerges someplace else.

That’s why we have trade agreements, to regulate this commerce. They take a long time to negotiate and they create winners and losers.

One problem I have with the president’s “America first” position is that I don’t see evidence that he has taken the time to figure out who among the Americans will end up being new losers.