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American Farmers Depend on International Trade

Ron Gruenhagen, a farmer from Muscatine, Iowa, says U.S. farmers are very dependent on foreign markets. “If we didn’t have them we would be flooded with grain and soybeans and maybe we wouldn’t know what to do with it,” he said.

Editor's Note: VOA reporters recently traveled to rural areas along the Mississippi River to speak with the "forgotten men and women" who are supporters of President Donald Trump. They spoke to farmers, factory workers, and retirees in largely white, Christian middle class communities. This is one of their stories.

American Farmers Depend on International Trade
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Seventy-three-year-old Ron Gruenhagen’s German ancestors moved to the United States in the middle of the 19th century.

They settled in Iowa, just west of the state of Illinois. They did not travel far from their new home. Much of the world they knew was Muscatine County and nearby counties in Iowa and Illinois. Many of the crops they grew were sold to people who lived in the area.

But that has changed. Now, some farming operations are controlled by rules written in Washington, DC. In addition, many of the crops are sold to buyers overseas.

“We are very dependent on our foreign markets,” notes Ron Gruenhagen. “If we didn’t have them, we would be flooded with grain and soybeans -- and maybe we wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

President Donald Trump has promised to renegotiate trade agreements that he believes are bad deals for the United States. And he has ended U.S. involvement in the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. The trade deal was supposed to increase trade between the United States and 10 other countries.

Many Iowa farmers and business leaders worry that a trade war will begin, affecting sales to countries that have become close trading partners. But Gruenhagen believes Trump’s criticisms are just part of his negotiating style.

“It concerns me, but it is all part of the negotiations,” he says.

“Everything we do is negotiated -- it is all negotiated.”

Muscatine County has special ties to China because Chinese President Xi Jinping lived with an Iowa family in 1985. At the time, he was a provincial official and interested in learning more about American agriculture. When Xi returned to the area in 2012, many people he had met years ago came to see him.

Ron Gruenhagen, 63, farms near Muscatine, Iowa, with his son and grandson. It's an expensive enterprise, including the land, buildings and about $1 million in farming equipment.
Ron Gruenhagen, 63, farms near Muscatine, Iowa, with his son and grandson. It's an expensive enterprise, including the land, buildings and about $1 million in farming equipment.

Local business leaders formed a welcoming committee. The group later became the Muscatine China Initiative, which works to strengthen business ties and investment between the county and Chinese companies.

Recently, the city of Muscatine honored Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, whom President Trump has named as U.S. Ambassador to China. A traditional Chinese orchestra performed at the event.

Ron Gruenhagen thinks it is good to have a Chinese leader who knows Iowa and rural America from firsthand experience.

“He certainly understands agriculture here. That’s half the battle in negotiations -- understanding the people on the other side of the table,” he says.

Gruenhagen does not believe there will be any trade war, although Trump has criticized the trade policies of China and other countries.

“Since we have become dependent on each other -- they on our food and we on the products they provide us -- we are interdependent and that is pretty important, perhaps, for a peaceful world,” Gruenhagen says.

He believes President Trump will improve the image of the United States in the world. He also hopes the Trump administration, with the support of the U.S. Congress, will reduce the number of rules that affect businesses, industry and farming.

“We are regulated to death,” Gruenhagen says. “It consumes a lot of our time just to comply with their rules.”

Gruenhagen says he supports the use of farming methods that protect the environment and keep soil safe. But he does not believe the federal government should be telling farmers in Iowa what to do.

“I think it is better for the individual farmer to decide what is best on his farm, how to control that soil and how to make it better rather than have a bureaucrat from Washington, D.C. indicate to us what is better,” he says.

Environmentalists say large agricultural companies, whose leaders do not live on farms, are often more concerned with profit than the land.

Gruenhagen’s son and grandson help him operate the family farm. He says one day they will own the land, buildings and equipment -- currently worth about a million dollars.

“It is a lot of work,” he says, “but it is a pleasure because we are able to feed a lot of people and, yes, we feed the world.”

VOA Correspondent Greg Flakus reported this story from Muscatine, Iowa. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted his report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

style – n. a particular way in which something is done, created or performed

firsthand – adj. coming directly from actually experiencing or seeing something

interdependent – adj. related in such a way that each needs or depends on the other; mutually dependent

regulate – v. to make rules or laws that control (something)

consume – v. to take all of a person’s attention, energy, time, etc.

comply – v. to do what you have been asked or ordered to do

bureaucrat – n. a person who is one of the people who run a government or big company and who does everything according to the rules of that government or company; a person who is part of a bureaucracy