For years, Iowa residents across rural areas have seen their downtowns shrink, as farms consolidate and businesses, schools and maternity wards regularly close. In Osage, a town of about 3,500 people near Minnesota’s southern border with Iowa, Main Street is noticeably active.
“Talking with other main street businesses, it wasn’t nearly as good as it was five years ago, but main street is still strong,” said Josh Olson, coowner of Limestone Brewers, which opened in 2018.
Olson said they were lucky to buy keg equipment right before prices on stainless steel jumped due to new tariffs. He sees Limestone Brewers as a place for people to gather on a cold evening.
“We see a lot of conversation. And they may be talking about finance, about the state of the farm, or they may just come in to talk about something else. It almost acts as a relief for some of these families,” Olson said. “Okay, I’ve been discussing how we’re gonna survive the next year with every other guy, let’s go have a beer and talk about the Super Bowl.”
Osage, a farming community heavily reliant upon the soybean and corn markets, has been caught in the crosshairs of a trade war between the United States and China that began in 2018, following years of already falling prices.
“This is probably the most difficult time in my farming life on making decisions to market corn and soybeans,” said Jon Gisleson, who has farmed corn and soybean for 45 years, including during the 1980s farm crisis.
Softening the tariff sting
To lessen the effect of those tariffs, Trump introduced funds to assist affected producers, including growers of soybean and corn, in 2018 and 2019. Last year, he authorised the USDA to provide up to $14.5bn.
Alec Amundson, who has been farming for four years, said those payments have helped, but they are not enough.
“That money in a lot of cases was a person’s only income for the year. Even then, some people operated at a loss, and that loss was just made smaller. If it weren’t for those payments, there would have been a lot more farm auctions, a lot more people getting forced out of farming,” Amundson said.
He said he and friends often joke about the “Trumpcare” they are getting, but that he – like everyone else interviewed – would rather earn money through trade, and not aid.
The ripple effects have been felt throughout Osage and surrounding areas. Amundson said churches are seeing fewer donations, and farm equipment dealers are seeing fewer profits. Nationally, farm bankruptcies have gone up.
“Even in our business of selling equipment, we haven’t sold as much of the big stuff as we used to. It’s all been smaller sales. People aren’t looking to spend money unless they can really justify that expense or they made a small profit and have decided to upgrade technology,” said Amundson, who also works at an agricultural technology provider company.
In the 2008 and 2012 general elections, Mitchell County, where Osage is located, voted for Democrat Barack Obama. In 2016, it pivoted to Donald Trump, a Republican. Heading into the 2020 campaign season, it is unclear how well Trump will do this time.