AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Perhaps no group of Americans would be harder hit by a trade war with China than farmers. When President Trump announced tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum imports, China retaliated by saying it would impose steep tariffs on a range of U.S. products with a big emphasis on agriculture. A group of elected officials from farm states met today with the president to discuss the issue. One of them was Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. He later spoke outside the White House.
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BEN SASSE: I think the president heard unified voices that we need more trade, not less and that the farmers and ranchers of America - they don't want welfare payments. They want to feed the world, and they want a reduction of both tariff and non-tariff barriers.
CORNISH: NPR's Don Gonyea has been in Nebraska this week speaking with farmers. He joins us now. Hi there, Don.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: So we spoke with several farmers the week of this announcement from China, and they were alarmed. Are they still so?
GONYEA: I'd say the concerns are still there certainly, mostly just over the uncertainty of it all. But remember; Nebraska is a state Trump carried easily in the election, so he has built up some goodwill here. And overall, I think I'd say the reaction is mixed but definitely, you know, leaning negative with lots of worries about how this might play out.
CORNISH: Of the people you spoke to, what are their specific concerns?
SASSE: Well, let me introduce you to two of the dozen farmers I've sat down with in the past 48 hours or so. We'll start with the tiny farm community of Firth, Neb. - Firth - F-I-R-T-H. It's about 20 minutes south of the state capitol of Lincoln. I met 35-year-old Nathan Dorn. He works a multigenerational farm with other family members - his dad, a couple of uncles, a cousin. So we talked in the living room of his parents' house. And he lives with his family across the backfield about a mile. And Dorn said he knew this was bad as soon as he heard Trump's initial announcement regarding steel and aluminum. He said his gut told him that China would respond by targeting one of the crops that he grows.
NATHAN DORN: I knew they were going to hit back at soybeans because, I mean, that's one thing that internationally - they can buy soybeans out of Brazil, out of Argentina.
GONYEA: And Dorn says it'll affect business decisions. Does he buy a new vehicle or keep his old one longer? Do he or his wife need to find an extra part-time job? He says he's a Republican, but he did not vote for Trump. He stressed that he didn't vote for Hillary Clinton either. He says he doesn't have confidence that the president even knows what he's started here.
DORN: I want to tell President Trump that trade wars aren't easy wars to win. I mean, that was his quote; you know, trade wars are easy wars to win. You know, I'm sitting here wondering where I'm going to buy seed next year, and I'm wondering about how my equipment's going to hold up.
GONYEA: Now, let's head a couple of hours north to the town of Blair, Neb. There's a big ethanol producing facility here. Down at the Maple Diner downtown, I found a group sitting around one of the big, round tables in the back. They are laughing and talking politics.
KEITH AHRENS: No, I really don't - I don't understand what tariffs are.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: See you later.
GONYEA: That voice is 60-year-old Keith Ahrens. He's been farming his entire life. He did vote for President Trump and says he still backs him. And he does actually know a bit about tariffs. He says he farmed through the U.S. grain embargo against the Soviet Union back in 1980. That was tough, he said. Today, he says, his initial worries about the potential for a big trade war with China have subsided a bit over the past week or so. Ahrens says he appreciates that the president seems committed to a tough stand on trade with China but also with other trading partners.
AHRENS: I believe in what he's trying to do because I think the negotiations are - is where we have to get better at negotiating these, you know, treaties. And now he's talking, OK, well if you're not going to do this, we're going to throw it out, and we'll start over.
CORNISH: Don, on that topic, trade negotiations, Senator Sasse indicated that President Trump might be reconsidering the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Is there any truth to that?
GONYEA: Well, it's the kind of talk that farmers here like, so it's reason for some optimism maybe. But the president has said this sort of thing before. He's always kept the door open for that, though actually making it happen and getting what Trump would likely need to even begin serious talks regarding rejoining TPP would be a huge undertaking. So ultimately it doesn't end the uncertainty that farmers in Nebraska and elsewhere are feeling.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Don Gonyea. Don, thank you.
GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.