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President Donald Trump speaks at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual convention in Nashville, Tenn., Jan. 8, 2018. (Doug Mills/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)

Trump touts tax cuts to farmers amid immigration concerns

President Donald Trump told a group of farmers on Monday, Jan. 8, that recent tax cuts and deregulation will revitalize the U.S. rural economy.

Trump's speech at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual conference in Nashville was his first policy address since Congress passed the $1.5 trillion tax overhaul. He said agricultural producers, businesses and workers will all benefit from the legislation, and that easing regulations will get better biotechnology products into farmers' hands.

"The American Dream is roaring back to life," Trump said. "Businesses across America have already started to raise wages."

While farmers overwhelmingly backed Trump in his 2016 campaign, some of his policies have raised concerns with them, including his threat to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, the tightening of immigration rules and cutting crop-insurance payments. Trump is the first sitting president in 26 years to address the Farm Bureau.

Trump told the group that he supports a farm bill that includes crop insurance, and that he will be working with Congress to pass a bill on time. He also addressed the Nafta negotiations, saying he's "working very hard to get a better deal for our country." The next round of Nafta talks is scheduled to start later this month in Montreal.

"When Mexico is making all of that money, when Canada is making all of that money, it is not the easiest negotiation," Trump said. "But we're going to make it fair for you people again."

Farming is one of the few sectors of the U.S. economy with a trade surplus, but farmers have struggled financially since the end of a commodities boom in 2013. Profits in 2017 are estimated to be less than half the record levels of four years earlier.

Trump also on Monday issued an executive order expanding rural broadband access to towers on federal lands and streamlining regulation to bring more digital technology to sparsely populated areas.

Trump used the moment to attack Democratic lawmakers, none of whom supported the tax legislation: "Every Democrat in the House, and every Democrat in the Senate voted against tax cuts for American farmers," he said.

With offices in 2,795 of the nation's 3,144 counties, the farm bureau has a broad reach and has long been recognized as the most influential lobbying group for farmers in Washington. Agribusiness is listed as the 10th-biggest industry in campaign contributions, just behind energy and ahead of construction, transportation and defense, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

The farm bureau spent more than $3 million on lobbying in 2017, ranking second in agribusiness behind Monsanto Co., the world's largest seed company and pioneer of genetically modified crops.

The farm bureau's convention drew more than 7,000 farmers from across the U.S.

Patty Lange Fischer, a farmer in Decatur County, Indiana, said she's been pleased with administration's changes to the estate tax and the rollback of a water rule, which was loathed by farmers. She operates an organic grain-cleaning operation and also produces corn, soybeans and grass-fed cattle. She says that she may use recent tax cuts to grow her business or better compensate employees.

"We needed a breath of fresh air," she said. "Our regulations -- they were becoming so cumbersome."

Dane Elliott of Pawnee, Texas, said he was pleased to see a sitting president address the farm bureau, after a two-decade span without a visit. He also said the changes to the estate tax will benefit his family's operation. The fourth-generation farmer produces hay and raises cattle on about 2,300 acres. However, he said he would like to see improvements made to the U.S. guest-worker program and ensure the president is "on board" with the bureau's position on trade. The group's president, Zippy Duvall, on Sunday highlighted a shortage of farm labor and uneasiness over trade as two factors limiting farmers.

"He realizes the importance of agriculture," Elliott said of Trump. "Farmers are some of the few people who buy everything at retail and sell everything at wholesale prices. He sees that everything rolls downhill and it ends up on a farmer's lap."