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Land of the Free Trade

The Eastern Plains of Colorado have gone Republican for decades. But will farmers and ranchers who rely on global markets vote for Donald Trump?


YUMA, Colorado — White-washed grain elevators are the tallest buildings in this town of 3,500 people located about 150 miles northeast of Denver. Corn is the major commodity, most of it grown with water from the shrinking Ogallala Aquifer and spread in 120-acre circles by center-pivot sprinklers. In the last 50 years, those massive sprinklers have transformed this small town on the treeless prairie into an outpost of industrial agriculture in a global economy.

This is the Great Plains, which cover nearly half of Colorado—the conservative half. While the tech-heavy Front Range and high-end mountain resorts have become more liberal, the farm and ranch counties of eastern Colorado remain stubbornly Republican. Yuma County hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and in the last presidential election went 77 percent for Mitt Romney. Other farm counties are even more Republican than that, returning more than 80 percent of ballots for Romney and George W. Bush in recent elections.

But Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, presents an intellectual problem for the region. He has broadly blamed globalization for losses in middle America and the middle class. “Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization—moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas,” he said in a June speech in Pennsylvania, later adding, “NAFTA was the worst trade deal in the history—it’s, like, the history—of this country—and China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization has enabled the greatest jobs theft in history.”

Trump was talking about factories, not farms. But in Iowa last month, he warned of a “war on the American farmer,” saying, “Hillary Clinton wants to shut down family farms just like she wants to shut down the mines and the steelworkers.” Clinton has said no such thing, of course, and has released a detailed “Plan for a Vibrant Rural America” aimed at family farmers and ranchers. Trump has been less forthcoming about his own plan for rural America, but this much is true: American farmers have benefitted greatly from international agreements that remove tariffs and other trade barriers. This part of Colorado, for instance, is firmly dependent upon export of agriculture products to China, Japan, Brazil, and even, yes, Mexico. So why would they vote for the man who vows to end free trade as we know it?

Eastern Colorado long ago ceased to be a land of yeoman farmers on small plots. The average irrigated farm in Yuma County today is about 2,000 acres, while dryland farms run 3,000 to 5,000 acres. Small feedlots faded and large ones became mammoth. Within just a few miles of Yuma, you can see two major feedlots. One produces 25,000 head of cattle each year, and the other—operated by Cargill, the Minneapolis-based multinational food conglomerate—100,000 head that are slaughtered at meatpacking houses including one owned by JBS, a Brazilian company. The Japanese and Koreans get substantial amounts of the cattle fed and then slaughtered in eastern Colorado, while China gets the hides. Hog farms also dot the land, some owned by Smithfield, a company owned primarily by Chinese investors. It takes a lot of corn to fatten up these animals: Yuma County is the nation’s No. 2 corn producer, but still needs to import corn from adjoining areas states for feed.

Cattle at Schramm Feedlot in Yuma.
Allen Best

Wheat, long a major crop, has been joined by sugar beets, sunflowers, and potatoes. Much gets exported. In an office along the railroad tracks in Yuma, the grain elevators towering nearby, Jeff Kler sits in front of computer screens that reveal tiny movements of global markets. He’s a grain merchandiser for CHS, a middleman between local farmers and the global economy. Wheat this year is traveling in 110-car trains to the port at Houston, for shipment to Brazil, African countries and elsewhere. This year, corn is being exported to Mexico. “The more demand there is for grain, the better everybody is,” he said. Whether free-trade agreements benefit the farmers, he adds, “depends on the futures market.”

In all, exports from Colorado onto the global market have almost tripled in the last decade, topping $2 billion in 2014 before the strengthening U.S. dollar caused a decline last year, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Canada is the No. 1 market, followed by Mexico, Japan, Korea, and China.

In reporting this story, people frequently told me that global trade is good, but the government just needed to butt out. That argument makes no sense to Tom Lipetzky, the Director of Marketing Programs and Strategic Initiatives for the Colorado Department of Agriculture. “These other countries are not going to be amenable to negotiating with an individual company,” he says. “To reduce barriers and tariffs, it pretty much has to be country to country.” What could be improved, he adds, is more rapid resolution to conflicts with other countries. He offers no judgment about whether Trump could resolve that.

Steve Koontz, an agricultural economist at Colorado State University, laughs at the isolationist arguments. Ten percent of beef in the U.S. gets exported, and a quarter of all corn. “Anybody who pooh-poohs and says that’s not important has fallen on their head at some time,” he says. The Great Plains have become very efficient at producing protein for export. “There’s no way we can eat all that we produce.”

There’s also no way to responsibly get government out of agriculture. Most farmers depend upon federal crop insurance to gird against losses such as are likely this year, when bumper crops are expected but prices are sagging. “If you don’t like government, don’t get crop insurance,” Koontz says. “Let’s see what your banker says about that.”

Loco Steve/Flickr

Yuma has been growing slightly, but many farm towns of the Great Plains have long been slipping toward names only. Transportation has made distant Walmarts more accessible at the expense of the local Main Street, and so has FedEx and the Internet.

Here, embrace of Trump seems weak compared to previous Republican nominees, but opposition to Clinton, who has also begun to question free-trade orthodoxy, is strong. Several people I talked with on a trip last week to Yuma and other farm towns dodged the question of support by saying some version of “whatever I do I won’t vote for her,” as if saying Clinton’s name would somehow scald their tongues.

Others broadly questioned whether free-trade agreements truly serve the interests of American farmers. “They give [foreign countries] too good a deal,” said Don Carmin, as we sat outside the Arby’s along Interstate 76. He runs more than 200 head of cattle on a farm 14 miles north of Fort Morgan. “Trump is my best hope for shaking up the establishment.” At the Prairie Ranch House in Wiggins, Tom Jones singled out the North American Free Trade Agreement. “It seems like it’s all been in one direction,” said Jones, the owner of an irrigation service company.

Yuma’s best-known resident is U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican, but there are some Democrats in power locally, like county commissioner Dean Wingfield. “Our county’s voters are more concerned about partisan politics than they are about policy,” he says. Democrats have pushed policies that encourage farmers not to overproduce. Republican policies offer no support but would instead let farmers “plant fence row to fence row and letting the markets take care of themselves, which the corporate world loves,” he says. He also points out that building a wall to shut out undocumented immigrants coming from Mexico would crimp an agricultural economy that relies so heavily on “cheaper, non-documented workers.”

Wingfield recalls talking with a neighbor in 2012 who fretted that Obama would “ruin” their way of life. “I asked him when the last time he had sold his corn at that price?” he recalls. “I knew what he was getting for his calves and asked how that compared to what he was getting for them before Obama became president.” A drought elsewhere in the U.S. had put a premium on grains and cattle, to the benefit of Colorado. “He admitted that he had never done as well farming as he had the past couple years and also admitted farming hadn’t been good for him during the previous eight years of Bush,” says Wingfield. “He remembered some good years under Clinton but wasn’t able to concede that the best years he could remember were under Democratic administrations.”

How has Wingfield survived as an elected Democrat for 20 years in a heavily Republican county? It’s a factor of a small population. “In a county of 10,000, it is possible for enough people to meet you or know you that they will vote for the person and not just the party,” he says. “As for myself, I am not nearly as much of a liberal as most of the Democrats in the state. My views would probably make me a Republican in a Boulder County.”

But Hillary Clinton will not be knocking on farmhouse doors in Yuma County, which means that a wide majority of voters there and throughout eastern Colorado will almost certainly cast their votes for a Manhattan real-estate developer known for squeezing governments for subsidies and hiring immigrant labor to shave costs. Colorado State’s Koontz notes the irony that residents clamoring for change are likely unwilling to change their voting habits. Once Republican, always Republican. “As apples,” he says, “we just don’t fall very far from the tree.”