Trump's trade war is crushing Midwest farmers — and their suicide rate is going up

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More than 150 farmers in the Midwest committed suicide in 2017 and 2018.

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.

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"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% in 2018 compared to the year before, according to the Farm Bureau. In 2019, Midwest farmers saw bankruptcies increase by another 17% compared to 2018.

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

Wisconsin, famous for its dairy products, saw a loss of 10% 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.