Trade Politics Comes to the County Fair

The county fair in Marion, Ohio, provided a cheerful refuge from the concerns of farmers about Chinese tariffs on soybeans, hogs and other products.

Few things in life are more reliable than the county fair. Evoking decades past, they appear every year — hot and sticky, an emporium of pop-up rides in cartoon colors, fried foods on sticks and contests that bring blue ribbons.

Long ripe for political debates, fairs are also places to contemplate the variables of farm and ranch life. Beyond rain, drought and finicky machinery, this year offers a new subject: a global face-off over tariffs.

To get a glimpse at a summer of uncertainly, we visited three weekend fairs: one near Indianapolis, another in an Ohio county of about 65,000 people, and still another southeast of San Francisco.

Credit...Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
Credit...Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

MARION, Ohio — Terry Ackerman wore his “special occasion” boots, the ones made of sheepskin, to the Marion County Fair.

“I live for the fair,” Mr. Ackerman said. “I always feel better about the future of our country after the fair.”

Ohio is among the states most threatened by the trade dispute that last week led the Trump administration to impose $34 billion worth of tariffs and provoked China's government to retaliate with its own levies on American soybeans, pork and other products. Although experts have warned that the intensifying clash could erase more than $240 million a year in soybean exports from Ohio, Mr. Ackerman did not come to the fair seeking solace: He is among the farmers who generally support the White House’s approach to tariffs.

“I’m not opposed at all,” said Mr. Ackerman, 58, who has farmed since his teenage years and now has about 800 acres of soybeans, corn and wheat, the leading crops around here. “It would certainly be better if we could progress without tariffs — there’s no question about that — but I guess I would say it’s short-term pain for long-term gain.”

[Read more about how President Trump’s trade war with China affects soybean farmers.]

Marion County, about an hour north of Columbus, does not treat its fair as a summertime rite of a bygone era. Drive around the county seat, where Warren G. Harding staged his “Return to Normalcy” campaign from his front porch in 1920, and you’ll see signs posted by businesses and civic institutions beckoning visitors to the fenced-in fairgrounds. The fair book for this year’s event, the 168th iteration, ran 92 pages.

And on sale day, it seemed no sound — no midway ride, no crackling caldron of frying oil, no turkey’s gobble — rose above the cries and pleas of a short-sleeved auctioneer.

You could hear him from the parking lot. You could hear him at the stand with $3 chocolate milkshakes. And, of course, you could hear him while you sidestepped hogs and the kids with pig whips.

Mr. Ackerman, whose children used to show cattle, has been coming to the fair for decades. In that time, he has become increasingly wary of the trade imbalance between the United States and China. He does not expect, or even necessarily want, a perfect trade balance with Beijing; instead, he talks about a more “level playing field.”

“They’re smart, shrewd people,” Mr. Ackerman says of Chinese importers, “and I tip my hat to them. If I was buying a bunch of grain, I’d be trying to buy it as cheap as I could, too.”

Mr. Ackerman said he voted for President Trump and credits him with recognizing the trade issue’s urgency. “There’s enough win-wins that can be had in trade, and I think the United States in the past has not pressed for more of that win-win situation,” Mr. Ackerman said.

He hopes that the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration in recent weeks will inspire what he perceives as a crucially needed shift. But they could convulse Marion County, which, because of its farms and a Whirlpool factory that can make about 20,000 dryers a day, has a larger stake in the trade war than many places.

Mr. Ackerman knows he is “not bulletproof,” but with some hedging and a generational advantage over younger farmers with more debts and fewer savings, he figures he can handle a two-year trade battle.

“I spend time figuring out how to manage it,” he said. “I’m comfortable, but don’t misunderstand: It’s not without concern, but I really think this is going to get worked out.”

On Saturday especially, he did not fret.

He bought a turkey at the auction. He lifted the price of a dairy feeder he thought was fetching too little of someone else’s money. And with silence and a series of quick nods, he won a goat raised by his electrician’s daughter.

His successful day at the auction left him optimistic. “I plan on doing it until I can’t get up,” he said.

Credit...Jason Henry for The New York Times
Credit...Jason Henry for The New York Times

PLEASANTON, Calif. — Hog prices have never been higher at the Alameda County Fair.

Garrett Post, 18, got more than $2,000 for his 265-pound pig, Kanan. You could easily get a half-dozen pigs for that price at a commercial auction.

But at this fair, overpaying for hogs raised by hobbyist farmers is the point. Unlike hog farmers elsewhere in the country, who are already fearing the impact of new tariffs that China imposed last week on American pork, fairgoers in Alameda County this weekend were more concerned about the trade war’s potential impact on Northern California’s wine industry and the nearby ports.

Mr. Trump is already unpopular in this part of the country. The trade war has done little to affect that.

[Read more about the impact of the American trade war with China on global markets.]

The buyer of Mr. Post’s pig, a man in a cowboy hat and black shirt embroidered with horseshoes and a large silver and gold “swine leader” belt buckle, was not a disinterested party.

He’s an engineer at Chevron, the oil company, who lives in the Oakland hills with a view of the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge. He is also Garrett’s father. Ron Post bought his son’s pig on behalf of his neighbors, who each paid a share to get fresh cuts of meat from a pig that went on regular walks on the fire trail in the open space behind their homes.

And that’s the point of the youth auction at the Alameda County Fair. Local companies, family members, a local politician — everyone who buys hogs, cattle and lambs at the livestock auction knows they are paying way above market price.

“It’s a great program for the kids,” said Lou Seever, the owner of a tire and auto repair shop who bought more than $20,000 worth of livestock at the youth auction on Sunday.

Scott Hagerty, a member of the Alameda County board of supervisors, attends every year, buys pigs and then donates the meat to homeless shelters.

Land is so scarce and expensive in the Bay Area that raising pigs here doesn’t make much economic sense.

“You can’t buy a house in this town for under a million bucks — and that’s a 40-year-old house,” said Mr. Seever, who grew up in South San Francisco.

Promoters say raising farm animals keeps the kids out of trouble. And in a part of the country best known for giving birth to Google, Apple and Facebook, raising pigs is a decidedly offline experience.

Among the hobby farmers at the auction on Sunday, the trade war with China was not a topic of conversation. But Mr. Hagerty, the supervisor, said local vintners would likely be impacted by China placing tariffs on American wine. Also potentially affected would be the Port of Oakland, which is in Alameda County, and which ships much of the Northern California wines that go overseas.

Laura Post, Garrett’s mother and a school psychologist in Palo Alto, said she views the trade war from the standpoint of a consumer.

“I’m personally not a fan of all the tariffs that will penalize buyers,” Ms. Post said. As a Democrat, she’s also not a fan of Mr. Trump, whom she describes as a self-centered bully.

“I’m not super excited about the political situation right now,” she said. “But I live in the Bay Area, and who is?”

Credit...Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Credit...Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

SHELBYVILLE, Ind. — The payoff of a tractor pull happens in less than a minute: Your engine roars, smoke billows, and your tractor barrels forward, often flipping up into a wheelie, dragging an impossibly heavy sled along a dirt track until it can go no farther.

The rest of the time is spent tending to that tractor, hauling it around inside a huge truck and devoting untold hours to readying it for the next competition.

“Once the sport gets in your blood, it’s just there,” said Ron Mitchell, a farmer who spends his off hours wearing a fireproof suit and helmet, participating in tractor pulls like the one on Saturday evening on the final night of the Shelby County Fair.

“You’ll work a week for one 20-second pull,” he said.

Like tractor pulls, farming takes patience. Mr. Mitchell, 53, has a lot of that. He has watched the corn on his fields and on fields around Shelby County, southeast of Indianapolis, grow tall and sturdy this season; old hopes for “knee high by the Fourth of July” have been wildly and happily surpassed.

All the while, Mr. Mitchell has also watched reports of a growing trade war with a sense of concern, but also with his trademark patience.

Long term, he says, the Trump administration’s conflict with other countries over tariffs will probably end well, with more fair markets. He says that would be good and has long been needed.

“But it’s going to be hard on the farmer here for a bit,” said Mr. Mitchell, who said he usually votes but chose not to in 2016; he wasn’t comfortable with either Hillary Clinton or Mr. Trump.

Mr. Mitchell’s soybeans have taken off in the last few weeks. The price, meanwhile, has been sinking in recent weeks amid speculation about the trade dispute’s impact. So Mr. Mitchell has been thinking about small ways to cut costs.

Hold off on a new combine? Search for lower fertilizer costs?

“We’re going to have to wait this out,” he said.

Mr. Trump won Indiana, and more than 70 percent of Shelby County voters chose him. Still, some at this county fair were more pointedly critical of the administration’s trade fight. Why not remove people from welfare rather than punish farmers who were already making narrow profits, asked one farmer, who declined to be quoted by name.

The last night of the Shelby County Fair — a clear, warm evening with a pinkish sky — drew a slightly subdued crowd. The Hot Mess, a concoction of French fries, pork, nacho cheese and barbecue sauce, wasn’t going as fast as it does on some nights, nor were the burgers cradled inside doughnuts, burgers inside pancakes, burgers inside French toast.

At a “Fool the Guesser” booth, the tanned, tattooed host who guesses ages, weights or birthdays for $5, abandoned his subtler pitches for customers, calling out on his microphone at one point: “Help me out. I’m trying to get a little gas money to get out of town.”

All the same, the truck and tractor pull drew a loud, enthusiastic crowd.

Mr. Mitchell spent years searching for the tractor he uses in pulls — a late 1960s-model Allis-Chalmers 180, the very one that a family friend had used in tractor pulls when Mr. Mitchell was growing up. He spends about 50 summer nights at these pulls, all over Indiana and Kentucky.

Could the trade fight cause him to cut back on his hobby?

It’s a thought, he said. Maybe he doesn’t buy new tires as often. “Or the night that you really want to beat your buddy, maybe you don’t turn the boost up,” he said. “Maybe you keep it back and just make a nice pass and hope to beat them without tearing your engine up.”

This night, Mr. Mitchell’s orange tractor whirred and rumbled as the weighted sled was hitched behind it. “Give it up for the hometown boy!” the announcer called out as the tractor’s immense tires began spewing dirt.

A few seconds later, his tractor had gone 301.26 feet — good enough for third place — and it was all over.

Alan Blinder reported from Marion, Ohio; Thomas Fuller from Pleasanton, Calif.; and Monica Davey from Shelbyville, Ind.

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