Trump Defends Trade Policies to Farmers Feeling the Pinch

WASHINGTON — President Trump, seeking to shore up his base of support in rural America, promised farmers on Monday that “the greatest harvest is yet to come” and insisted that the pain they are experiencing from his economic policies would ultimately make them better off.

In a speech to the American Farm Bureau at its annual convention in New Orleans, Mr. Trump asked farmers to be patient as he tries to rewrite trade agreements with China, Europe, Canada and Mexico and as he does battle with congressional Democrats over immigration.

The president’s policies have caused problems for the farming industry, which was already struggling with higher commodity costs, stiff retaliatory tariffs and loss of access to some markets as a result of Mr. Trump’s trade fight with other nations. Farmers are now dealing with a freeze on certain types of government-backed loans, subsidy payments and other federal services as a result of the protracted partial government shutdown, which has entered its fourth week.

“No one understands better than our great farmers that the tough choices we make today reap rewards for centuries to come,” Mr. Trump said.

In a stemwinder that touched on immigration policy, media criticism and the importance of standing for the national anthem at football games, Mr. Trump told farmers that the benefits of trade deals that have not been finalized were already being realized.

In reality, the president’s trade agenda remains in flux, and he has yet to secure pivotal trade agreements with Europe, Japan, China and other countries that could determine whether he is able to keep his pledge to enrich the United States’ agricultural workers by cutting better deals.

On Monday, Mr. Trump painted a rosy picture for farmers who are facing a difficult year ahead as the American economy faces a slowdown and as an array of complicated trade negotiations remain unresolved.

Mr. Trump declared that his talks with China are going well, that farmers would soon see open access to China’s vast market and that they would be protected from what he described as efforts by the Chinese to illicitly acquire their intellectual property for seeds and other products. The scope of any China deal remains murky, however, as deep divisions remain between the two countries, which face a March 2 deadline to reach an agreement. Failure to broker a deal would result in the Trump administration further raising tariffs on Chinese imports, escalating a trade war that has already rattled markets and provided a drag on the global economy.

The president also praised his get-tough approach with Europe, explaining that he was in the process of overhauling a trade relationship with the European Union that he said was unfair because it does not allow American farmers to sell enough chicken, cheese, beef and other agricultural products to European countries.

“They treat our farmers terribly,” Mr. Trump said, touting his lack of popularity in Europe. “They don’t want your product.”

Yet despite the suggestion that his approach would secure more access to Europe for American farmers, Europe’s top trade negotiator, Cecilia Malmstrom, made clear to American officials last week on a visit to Washington that any trade agreement would be limited to industrial goods. The European Union’s member states have not given her the authority to negotiate new terms for agricultural products, a limitation that could prove to be a dealbreaker in any new trade treaty with the United States.

The president is also facing resistance at home to the revised trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, which is critical to American farmers. Mr. Trump said that the deal, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, was a boon for American dairy farmers, who would soon face fewer restrictions when selling products into Canada. But the agreement has yet to win congressional approval, and Democrats who now control the House have made clear they are not ready to rubber-stump the agreement without significant changes.

The government shutdown has only exacerbated anxiety among farmers. The trade war had already reduced American farmers’ access to China, a critical market for soybeans, farm equipment and other products, and the industry is struggling with retaliatory tariffs from Europe, Canada and Mexico.

To help cushion the blow, Mr. Trump created a $12 billion bailout fund to compensate farmers hurt by the trade war. But that program is on hiatus and payouts are delayed because the Agriculture Department is not being funded during the shutdown.

Mr. Trump blamed Democrats for the situation and defended his position that he should not approve funding for the government until lawmakers agree to build a wall along the southwestern border, which he said is essential for keeping the country safe. He did draw applause at one point for striking a softer tone on immigration and insisting that he wants to make it easier for farmers to hire and keep immigrant workers.

Despite professing his love for farmers, Mr. Trump’s urban roots were at times hard to conceal. The president acknowledged his ignorance about wheat policy when explaining that Canada would soon grade American wheat the same way it grades its own.

“Which to me doesn’t mean much,” he said, “but to farmers it means a lot.”

At another point, Mr. Trump celebrated his efforts to ease the regulatory burden that farmers face, noting that he rolled back a rule that penalized farmers for having prairie potholes on their land.

“Do you all know what prairie potholes are?” he asked a laughing audience. “I don’t, but it sounds bad.”