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Tariff-stung Illinois farmers feel pain but keep the faith: ‘It is hurting us’

Robert E. Klemm is a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer in Waynesville, about 150 miles southwest of Chicago. Like most Illinois farmers, he is being hurt by the retaliatory tariffs sparked by President Donald Trump's trade war, though his faith in the president remains unshaken. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Robert E. Klemm is a farmer, just like his father before him. And his father’s father before that. And his father’s father’s father before that.

“I grew up right here,” said Klemm, standing beside a field of corn in Waynesville, Illinois, about 150 miles southwest of Chicago, on a farm his great-grandfather worked in 1905. Now he farms 1,100 acres of corn and soybeans, plus raises a smattering of cattle.

Like most American farmers, he does not mince words about recent shifts in U.S. trade policy.

“I don’t like the tariffs, as any agricultural producer wouldn’t,” he said. “It’s been very difficult on our economics. And I’m just hoping the president continues the negotiations. I understand the need of it. But it’s hit our pocketbooks really hard … I’m gravely concerned. It’s not going to hurt us. It is hurting us. It has and will.”

OPINION

President Donald Trump was elected, in part, by promising to revive domestic American industries such as steel, aluminum and coal. Over the past few months, he has imposed tariffs on imported steel, aluminum and other products from the European Union, Canada, Mexico and particularly China — earlier this month he levied tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese products.

When a country is hit by tariffs, however, it invariably hits back, and retaliatory tariffs slammed a wide swath of American industries, from motorcycles to beer. Harley Davidson announced it is expanding European operations; Budweiser is raising prices to reflect higher cost of cans.

Farmers are getting hit especially hard, as China penalizes soybean imports.

Trying to soften the blow, and in light of Friday’s visit to Iowa and then the U.S. Steel Plant at Granite City to bask in the appreciation of U.S. Steel workers there, Trump announced a $12 billion relief program for farmers. Farmers appreciate the gesture.

“It’s a voice telling us, ‘We realize something’s going on here,'” Klemm said. “To say it’s going to fix it? No. But it is an effort in good faith. I trust in our government enough.”

“It will definitely help some,” said Daryl Cates, a soybean farmer with 1,500 acres in Monroe and St. Clair counties, along the Mississippi River just east of St. Louis. “But we would rather have free trade than getting aid from the government.”

Trump also claimed the European Union promised it would start buying more soybeans. But the EU accounts for only 4 percent of American agricultural exports, and negotiations didn’t even address agriculture.

“We worked 30 years to have this market with China,” Cates said. “Twenty-five to 30 percent of Illinois soybeans are exported to China. If this tariff stays in place, we could lose it forever.”

Once trade with a partner is disrupted, he said, that country doesn’t stop importing a vital product like soybeans. They find another supplier.

“After the embargo with the Russians, we never got that business back,” Cates said.

Despite taking a hit economically, farmers’ confidence in the president is unshaken.

“Tariffs are hurting right now, but in the end it’ll be OK,” said DeWitt County farmer Marvin Finfrock, stepping down from his tractor. He estimated that the 10,000 acre operation he runs with his son, farming soybeans, will lose $1 million due to the tariffs.

“Trump will come around — he’s a business person,” Finfrock said. “We’re taking the brunt of it right now, but we need to sell this product overseas.”

“He’s doing it as a businessman, from a business perspective,” Klemm said. “It’s going to take a lot of negotiating with these countries.”

If the combination of alarm and resignation — or trust, if you prefer — seems puzzling, remember these farmers have dealt with infestations, floods, droughts and plenty of baffling government action before. They’re in it for the long haul.

Klemm is 66. He’s has been farming 42 years. “I’m on the slowdown side,” he said. It’s a comfort to know that fresh generations are taking up the plow.

As we spoke, his son John, 35, was working on a gleaming John Deere 5660 combine, getting it ready for the fall harvest. His grandson Blaine, 7, is well on his way to becoming the sixth generation to work this land.

“He’s there learning from Dad and Grandpa,” said Klemm, noting that even Blaine’s little brother, Quentin, 2, helps out. “This is their farm, and they claim it.”

His mood could be described as concerned but optimistic.

“I’m a man of strong faith,” said Klemm, who savors seeing both his crops and family grow. “It’s blessings from God, every day.”