WASHINGTON — Peppered with complaints from farmers fed up with President Donald Trump's trade war, Sonny Perdue found his patience wearing thin. Perdue, the agriculture secretary and the guest of honor at the annual Farmfest gathering in southern Minnesota this month, tried to break the ice with a joke.
"What do you call two farmers in a basement?" Perdue asked near the end of a testy hourlong town-hall-style event. "A whine cellar."
A cascade of boos ricocheted around the room.
American farmers have become collateral damage in a trade war that Trump began to help manufacturers and other companies that he believes have been hurt by China's "unfair" trade practices.
More than a year into the trade dispute, sales of American soybeans, pork, wheat and other agricultural products to China have dried up as Beijing retaliates against Trump's tariffs on Chinese imports. Lucrative contracts that farmers long relied on for a significant source of income have evaporated, with Chinese buyers looking to other nations like Brazil and Canada to get the commodities they need. Farm bankruptcy filings in the year through June were up 13% from 2018 and loan delinquency rates are on the rise, according to the American Farm Bureau.
The predicament of farmers is becoming a political problem for Trump as he heads into an election year. For months, farmers have remained resolute, continuing to pledge support to a president who says his trade policies will help the agricultural industry win in the end. While there are few signs of an imminent blue wave in farm country, a growing number of farmers say they are losing patience with the president's approach and are suggesting it will not take much to lose their vote as well.
Trump, who regularly brags about an economic boom despite signs of a slowdown, has in some cases made matters worse. He recently dismissed sales of American wheat, suggesting Japan was buying it only as a favor to the United States. And his frequent tweets insisting that "farmers are starting to do great again" have rubbed some agriculture groups the wrong way.
"We're not starting to do great again," Brian Thalmann, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, told Perdue at the event. "Things are going downhill and downhill quickly."
Last week, after a 72-hour period during which Trump twice escalated his trade war with China, Thalmann said he could no longer support the president as he did in 2016.
"At some point we have to quit playing games and get back to the table and figure this out," Thalmann said. "There's no certainty to any of this."
Losing the world's most populous country as an export market has been a major blow to the agriculture industry. Total U.S. agricultural exports to China were $24 billion in 2014 and fell to $9.1 billion last year, according to the American Farm Bureau. Exports of farm products to China fell by $1.3 billion in the first half of the year, the agriculture group said this month.
A report from the Agriculture Department this month found that Canadian wheat exports to China have "rocketed" this year, while exports from the United States have plunged.
The administration has tried to mollify farmers by rolling out two financial aid packages totaling $28 billion. The White House has also dispatched Perdue, the 72-year-old former governor of Georgia who was raised on a farm and trained as a veterinarian, to places like Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin to calm the nerves of farmers.
But as the trade fight gets uglier, farmers are beginning to panic. Last week, Trump said he would increase tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports to 30% and impose a 15% tax on another $300 billion worth later this year. China has already said it will no longer buy American agricultural products and announced Friday that it would raise tariffs on $75 billion of exports from the United States.
That prompted Trump to describe Xi Jinping, China's president, as an "enemy" and suggest that he wanted to raise tariffs even higher, before declaring Monday that talks between the two nations continue.
The trade conflict's toll on farmers is spreading to the manufacturers that serve them. Deere & Co., the maker of agricultural equipment, said this month that it was cutting its profit forecast for the second time this year. The company's chief executive said farmers were delaying purchases because of concerns about access to export markets.
The administration is looking for other ways to help farmers, including scrambling to secure additional trade deals. At the Group of 7 summit in France this week, Trump said the United States and Japan were nearing an agreement that would result in Japanese companies buying more American corn.
Trump is also trying to appease corn farmers who complain that an Environmental Protection Agency decision this month will hamper ethanol production. Farmers say the agency's decision to exempt small oil refineries from a requirement to blend corn-based ethanol into gasoline has led to a drop in demand for the fuel.
On Thursday, Trump summoned Perdue and Andrew Wheeler, who heads the EPA, to the White House to discuss options for increasing ethanol demand. The three came up with a package of policies that Trump plans to unveil at a White House ceremony in the next week, according to people familiar with the plan. The package would leave the waivers for ethanol refineries in place, while slightly increasing federal mandates for production of corn-based ethanol and biodiesel and allowing vehicles that use high-ethanol blends of gasoline to qualify for special EPA credits.
Perdue is a somewhat unlikely lieutenant in Trump's trade war. As Georgia's governor, he worked to strengthen ties between the state and China, welcoming Chinese companies and making economic development trips to Shanghai and Beijing. At one point he pushed for Atlanta to become a hub for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a proposed 34-country trade pact that never came to fruition.
"He's a very strong supporter of free trade," said Craig Lesser, who worked for Perdue as Georgia's commissioner of economic development.
But in the Trump administration, Perdue has been a staunch backer of the president's policies, publicly defending tariffs, working to shrink the federal government and expressing doubts about the science behind climate change.
"He's the Trump whisperer," said Neill Herring, an environmental activist in Georgia who once worked with Perdue in the state Legislature. "He can tell Trump exactly what he wants to hear."
Perdue declined to be interviewed. His spokeswoman pointed to the extent of his outreach to farmers, noting that as of late July he had visited all 50 states, had traveled more than 113,600 miles and had gone to 104 farms since taking the job in 2017.
Perdue, who was once a Democrat, has also shown a penchant for pleasing conservatives. Last year, he pitched the idea of slashing federal food stamp assistance programs by partially replacing food allowance money for the poor with "harvest boxes" of pasta, cereal and canned goods selected by the government. That plan was eventually scrapped, but Perdue has continued his push to curtail food stamps this year, including last month when he proposed a rule that would cut 3 million people off from food stamps by changing the eligibility requirements.
Most recently, Perdue won plaudits from top White House officials for moving part of his agency out of town. After agency research clashed with the administration's policy agenda, Perdue decided last year to relocate two of the department's scientific divisions — the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture — to the Kansas City region from Washington. Perdue claimed that the relocation was not retaliatory and was about moving researchers closer to their subjects.
According to the American Federation of Government Employees, only about 100 of the approximately 500 employees from the divisions have agreed to relocate.
When Perdue addressed employees in June about the move, several stood and turned their backs to him, according to people who were in the room. Democrats have been outraged by the relocation, calling it an attack on science. And the Agriculture Department's inspector general said in a report released this month that moving the research units without congressional approval might be illegal.
In the West Wing, however, Perdue's decision was seen as a stroke of brilliance.
At the South Carolina Republican Party's Silver Elephant gala in early August, Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, hailed Perdue's maneuver as a case study of how to "drain the swamp."
"It's nearly impossible to fire a federal worker," Mulvaney said. "I know that because a lot of them work for me and I've tried and you can't do it."
At Minnesota's Farmfest, it was clear that Perdue's Southern charm could go only so far. His answers to questions about how the trade war with China would end were curt, and his quip about whining farmers left some with a sour taste.
But many farmers continue to support Trump and express hope that the president knows what he is doing in his dealings with China. A July survey from Farm Journal found that 79% of 1,100 farmers still back Trump despite the lack of progress in negotiations with China, however his support dropped to 71% in August.
For now, Perdue largely remains an effective emissary, with the industry still hoping Trump can pull off the kind of trade deal he has been promising.
"He's one of us; he's a farmer," Brad Kremer, a Wisconsin farmer who is the treasurer of the American Soybean Association, said of Perdue. "I think he's got a tough job in a tough administration."