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.

Terry Ackerman says he expects the escalating trade war with China will be “short-term pain for long-term gain.”Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
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.”

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.

A different kind of hog farming

Ron Post placed the winning bid on his son’s pig during the youth livestock auction at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, Calif.Jason Henry for The New…

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