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For Wisconsin's Dairy Farmers, Tariffs Could Reshape The Race For The Senate07:21
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Eve Clark, 10, and Maggie Berry, 17, help with chores at Vision Aire Farms. They are seen in the barn, adjacent to the milking parlor.MoreCloseclosemore
Eve Clark, 10, and Maggie Berry, 17, help with chores at Vision Aire Farms. They are seen in the barn, adjacent to the milking parlor.

Janet Clark hopes to keep her dairy farm in the family. She inherited Vision Aire Farms from her parents, and now runs it with her younger brother.

The farm is idyllic, tucked away amid rolling green hills of corn and sunflower fields. One side of the farm holds a line of calves. They are individually fed by Clark's children and their cousins, playfully holding milk bottles for them to drink.

It's here where Clark and her family begin work each day at 5:30 a.m., doing chores and milking cows. But times are tough. Milk prices have already fallen 4 percent this year, continuing a steady decline since 2014, according to data from the Labor Department. Meanwhile, net farm income, a broad measure of profits, is forecast to drop this year to its lowest level since 2006, according to the Department of Agriculture.

"It hits my bottom line," Clark says about falling milk prices. "The last two years have been most challenging."

Even tougher times might be ahead, she worries. Wisconsin is the number-two dairy supplier in the country. In an industry where margins can be razor thin, farmers like Clark have come to rely on selling their milk products abroad, specifically Mexico, which is one of the biggest importers of U.S. dairy.

When the Trump administration announced earlier this year that Mexico, Canada and the European Union would face tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, Mexico responded by levying tariffs of up to 25 percent on U.S. dairy products.

Clark says those tariffs threaten business relationships that farmers have spent years cultivating.

"We have created relationships with the people that we're exporting with," Clark says. "Now they're going to back off, and not buy from us. So that opens the door for other people to create those relationships."

The president's tariffs are a complicated subject for many farmers in Wisconsin. The state's rural communities swung hard for Donald Trump in 2016, helping him become the first Republican to win Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Clark says she supports the president, but admits she's worried. The White House has proposed a plan to spend $12 billion in emergency farm aid, but, says Clark, "I would rather have trade than have aid."

It's a mantra echoed my many farmers in Wisconsin.

Travis Clark and Janet Clark are pictured with their three children, from left, Grace, 13, Eve, 10, and Levi, 6, at Vision Aire Farms. (Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism)
From left, Corey Tavs and Andrew Sullivan help with the afternoon milking at Vision Aire Farms. Owners Travis and Janet Clark often do the milking themselves, but call in additional employees when they need extra help. (Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism)
Eve Clark, 10, is nuzzled by a calf during feeding time at Vision Aire Farms. Also pictured is her cousin, Addison Grade, 7. Eve, along with her siblings and cousins, regularly take care of the animals and other chores around the farm. (Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism)

Hoping for a better deal

At the Wisconsin State Fair this month, farmers from across the state were showing off their prize cattle. Among several stalls, cattle were getting full beauty treatments with fur blowouts and hair spray, their coats delicately sheared and brushed to look fluffy.

That's where 70-year-old Dan Angotti, wearing denim overalls and a baseball cap, was hanging out with his grandchildren. Angotti runs Dad Acres in a town called Freedom. The region went all in for Trump during the 2016 election.

Despite concerns over the tariffs, Angotti says he's willing to give the president as long as it takes to get a better deal.

"I figure by fall or the first of the year, it will get straightened out. And it will," Angotti says. "He's our president and I support him."

But a few stalls down, Jeff Leahy, a beef and grain farmer from Lafayette County, says he feels the community is paying an unfair price for the president's trade strategy.

"They're using [agriculture] as leverage and that's not fair to us," Leahy says.

Leahy says the president was too quick in enacting tariffs. "You just can't go and say I'm going to do this, and not realize who it's going to affect," he says.

Vision Aire Farms has about 150 milking cows. (Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism)
A board near the barn lists the cow tag numbers along with information concerning the dates they are ready to "freshen" or "dry." (Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism)

The race for the Senate

Farmers are a key constituency for politicians in Wisconsin, and the issue of tariffs has loomed large for the top two GOP candidates fighting to take on the incumbent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin this November. The primary is Tuesday.

One of those candidates, Leah Vukmir, is a state senator and registered nurse. She has been endorsed by Wisconsin's own Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, and by the state's Republican Party.

Like many Wisconsin Republicans in 2016, Vukmir was initially not sold on Trump. But she has emerged as a vocal supporter of the president and his tariffs.

"I want America to succeed," she says. "And he is leading that charge, and that's why I want to stand with him in Washington to help."

Her opponent, Kevin Nicholson, a decorated combat veteran and business consultant, also supports the president and his tariff policy.

"If he can make it better, we're going to give him the benefit of the doubt and we're going to give him the time," Nicholson said during a recent stop at Miss Katie's diner in Milwaukee. "It's clear as day, this is what the president is trying to do, is let's bring our trade partners back to the negotiation table and eliminate all tariffs."

The status quo of foreign trade deals is unsustainable for the people of Wisconsin, Nicholson says.

"The status quo that says Canada, EU, China, India are allowed to slap tariffs or to engineer their economies in such a way that they protect their own industries when we do not do the same," he says. "That's what's really been bad for the people of Wisconsin and that's what needs change."

Baldwin, the incumbent they're hoping to unseat, has fought Trump on tariffs every step of the way. She's one of 10 Senate Democrats running for re-election in states that Trump won in 2016.

Republicans across the country are pouring millions of dollars into the race to defeat Baldwin, whose position on tariffs stands in stark contrast with her GOP rivals.

She says the president's trade war was "absolutely unnecessary," and that troubles with the farm industry will only get worse from trade wars and tariffs.

"Canada and Mexico and the European Union are not the problem, and the idea that the Trump administration has decided to not exempt those countries defies imagination," Baldwin said in a telephone interview while campaigning in Wausau, Wisc. "It's not smart trade policy."

For her part, Clark from Vision Aire Farms says she plans to vote in both Tuesday's primaries and November's midterm elections. She says she will look at the person, not the ticket.

"I want to know what every American wants: What are you going to do for me?" Clark says. "How are you going to affect me and my business? So I will see."

Correction: August 12, 2018 12:00 am — An earlier version of this story misidentified the type of cattle on display at an exhibit at the Wisconsin State Fair earlier this month as bulls.

Copyright NPR 2018.

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