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Donald Trump's trade war with China contributed to a spike in farmer suicides across the Midwest in recent years, according to an investigation by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

On Monday, USA Today reported that more than 450 farmers killed themselves between 2014 and 2018. However, investigators cautioned that the true number is likely higher because several states did not share complete data with the investigative team.

More than 150 of the suicides were committed during 2017 and 2018.

"We like to identify something as the cause," Ted Matthews, a psychologist who works with Minnesota farm families, told USA Today. "Right now, they talk about commodity prices being the cause, and it's definitely a cause, but it is not the only one by any stretch."

The investigation found several key factors that contributed to the suicide crisis, including the drop in commodity prices since 2012, as well as increased farmer debt, bad weather that prevented planting, and a severe drop in exports to China "amid festering trade tensions."

Trump often complained about U.S. trade policies when running for office, and started taking some actions in 2017 in an attempt to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China. In March 2018, Trump officially announced $50 billion in tariffs against China, setting off an extended trade war between the two countries.

Since Trump's trade war began, farmer bankruptcies in the Midwest have been on the rise. Bankruptcies for Midwest farmers increased by 19 percent in 2018 compared to the year before, according to the Farm Bureau. In 2019, Midwest farmers saw bankruptcies increase by another 17 percent compared to 2018.

Across the country, the Farm Bureau reported a 20 percent increase in farm bankruptcies in 2019 compared to 2018.

Wisconsin, famous for its dairy products, saw a loss of 10 percent of its dairy farms in 2019, the largest decline in state history.

Trump has "undermined our health care system at every turn, directly impacting farmers' ability to get the mental health services they need," Philip Shulman, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said in a Monday email.

Experts told the USA Today that "devastating economic events" are not solely responsible for suicides, but such events "can be the last straw for a person already suffering from depression or under long-term stress."

"Trump pursued reckless trade policies that caused Wisconsin farm bankruptcies to spike and exacerbated the financial strain on farming families across the country," Maddie McComb, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said in an email this week. "Instead of obsessively tweeting, trying to slash Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and lying to farmers about unfulfilled trade deals, Trump should focus on finding real solutions to this growing crisis."

In 2018, Farm Aid, a nonprofit group focused on helping farmers, saw a spike in calls to its crisis hotline, spokesperson Jennifer Fahy said in an email. The hotline worked with 1,034 farmers that year, and another 864 farmers in 2019.

"Farm Aid stresses that while the trade wars have further damaged farmers, there is no one cause of this farm crisis," Fahy said about the recent spike in suicides. "The long term answer is not continued federal payouts to farmers, but a shift in farm policy to deliver fair prices and reward farmers for practices that increase farm resiliency and mitigate climate change."

The Trump administration has spent twice as much to bail out farmers hurt by its trade policies ($28 billion) as the Obama administration spent to rescue the auto industry during the Great Recession ($12 billion).

In addition to Farm Aid, many farmers have said that the bailouts are not enough.

"This [bailout] was supposed to make sure farmers were not the victims of this trade policy," Jim Mulhern, president of the National Milk Producers Federation, told the New York Times in November 2018. "I think most agriculture producers feel that the payments have not come close to making up for the damage for the tariffs."

In December 2019, the Trump administration announced a Phase I trade deal with China meant to bring an end to the trade war, but many farmers are skeptical that it will be sufficient. Trump announced China would soon purchase $50 billion worth of American agricultural products per year, despite the fact that the U.S. has never exported more than $26 billion in agricultural exports to China in a single year.

"I think it's a lot of false promises again," Bob Kuylen, a wheat and sunflower farmer who also and raises cattle in North Dakota, told the Associated Press in December.

Farmers looking for assistance can Farm Aid's hotline at 1-800-FARM-AID (1-800-327-6243). And anyone can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) for free help and support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This story has been updated to include additional comment from the Democratic National Committee.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer used a taxpayer-funded USDA podcast to suck up to their boss, President Donald Trump, and praise his agricultural trade policies, which have left farmers hurting. 

Lighthizer joined Perdue for the latest broadcast of the USDA’s monthly podcast The Sonnyside of the Farm, which purports to cover “the issues facing America’s farmers, ranchers, producers and foresters.” The podcast has recently featured former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich. 

Perdue peppered his podcast with Lighthizer, the president’s top trade policy adviser, with his signature praise of Trump. Introducing his guest, Perdue described Trump as “an unapologetic advocate for America around the globe” and said that he wanted to congratulate Lighthizer because he “can’t think of anyone who can support President Trump better than you have in these trade negotiations. You’re tough and you reinforce his ability to use leverage … You’ve been quite a sidekick to the president.” 

Turning to the topic of farmers, Perdue said, “I don’t think people would understand how much [Trump] really cares” and later said that farmers appreciate Trump’s “toughness” and that in return, Trump sees in farmers “the values that embody the American spirit, who really built this country.” Lighthizer agreed, saying that Trump also “appreciates” that “so many farmers have basic values, the kind of values that not only made the economy, but made our communities.” Lighthizer also told an anecdote about Trump supposedly caring about farmers more than anything else and said Trump refers to them as “his farmers and ranchers.”

When Lighthizer praised Trump for being willing to “stir it up” on trade, Perdue responded by saying that was “the amazing thing about President Trump” before praising the president’s “trading acumen.” Lighthizer added that working with Trump is “a hoot,” that he has “been kind of a consistent, steady leader,” and that the two have never had a disagreement. 

Perdue ended the show by saying to Lighthizer, “I want to applaud you on behalf of the United States of America for supporting our president,” and added that “like the president said, I’m not tired of winning yet.”

On the issue of farmers affected by Trump’s trade war with China, Lighthizer said, “On this question of the farmers, and the farmers being being bothered by some of things we’ve done, and, as you say, it’s now been proven that we were right and the numbers are coming in.”

But that’s not the case. In 2018, Trump started a trade war with China, imposing additional tariffs on the importation of $34 billion of Chinese goods. In response, China placed tariffs on U.S. agricultural products such as soybeans and dramatically reduced importation of U.S. soybeans in favor of increased purchases from other countries, in particular Brazil. The trade war caused serious additional financial problems for soybean farmers. (Disclosure: This author’s family farms corn and soybeans in Illinois.) 

Overall, Trump’s trade war with China has been absolutely devastating for U.S. farmers. In January, Trump touted his signing of the so-called “phase one” trade deal with China as evidence that he was bringing the trade war to a successful conclusion. But as Vox reported, the deal “stops short of the comprehensive trade and reform agreement the Trump administration wanted when it launched its trade war with China in 2018” and “it’s still not clear if China can or will totally fulfill this obligation to buy US products, and even if it does, the guarantee is only for two years.” Writing for The Hill, Daniel Griswold, a senior research fellow for the conservative Mercatus Center, called the trade targets in the “phase one” deal “unrealistic” given that they would require an “unprecedented” increase in exports to China. 

In any case, significant damage has already been done. Writing at Forbes on the “crushing truth” about Trump’s trade war, Erik Sherman noted that because of the standard business model for small farmers in the U.S., “small family farms (90 percent of all family farms) are in deep trouble normally” and that “these latest shocks are helping to drive up farm bankruptcies and farmer suicides.”

Sherman said relief given to farmers as a result of the trade war in the form of subsidies has not been equitably distributed, noting that “the biggest [farm] organizations sucked up the bulk of the money, putting small farmers ever further behind.” The release of the Sonnyside of the Farm episode comes days after Politico published an extensive expose about dysfunction under Perdue at USDA. Of many of the issues discussed in the report, Politico delved into payments to farmers, noting that “many in the industry” considered them insufficient to offset losses from the trade war, including corn farmers — who “were outraged about receiving just one penny per bushel under the 2018 trade aid plan” compared to an average 44 cent per bushel drop in corn prices — and blueberry farmers,who were alsoaffected by the trade war but received no subsidies.

Perdue hosted the inaugural episode of the USDA podcast in October, when he traveled to Arkansas to meet with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is likely to run for governor in that state. They discussed farm policy only minimally during the podcast, and only in defense of Trump’s policies. Instead, Perdue and Sanders spent the majority of the episode heaping lavish praise upon Trump. 

In December, Perdue hosted Gingrich for an episode in which the two attacked people who receive food stamps, with Perdue suggesting they don’t contribute anything to society. The cruelty has endured on that front, with the Trump administration pushing a proposed USDA rule that could leave more than 3 million people without access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and cause nearly 1 million children to lose their automatic enrollment in a program that provides breakfast and lunch at school.