REPUBLICAN presidential nominee Donald Trump is wooing farm voters and wielding influence in core battleground US states where agriculture is an economic imperative.
But the outspoken candidate’s protectionist opposition to trade deals that slash tariff barriers on US agricultural exports, and his hard-line views on immigration policy which could cruel farm labour supplies, remain highly problematic.
Mr Trump - a controversial New York based real estate billionaire and media personality - has been confirmed as the Republican Party’s nominee for the US presidential election on November 8.
His Democratic Party opponent is likely to be Hillary Clinton - the wife of former US President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State - setting up an intriguing political fight.
Speaking to the National rural Press Club in Canberra last week, US Agriculture Ambassador to Australia Hugh Maginnis said he fielded about four questions per day on the US presidential race and welcomed Australia’s “intense” interest in the topic.
“We’re flattered that you‘re paying attention,” he said while describing it as a complicated election race with a lot of loud rhetoric occurring on both sides of the fence.
“But this is the way our elections work,” he said.
Mr Maginnis said in general terms he believed Mr Trump was a “pretty strong supporter” of US farmers and domestic agriculture.
He said the Republican nominee was also being well-received in the “battleground states” like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio where agriculture was critical to the local economy.
“I know that the Trump campaign is reaching out to the agriculture sector in those states and I think he’s enjoying good support among our rural population,” he said.
“In terms of what’s going to happen if he were to become president, it’s hard to predict.
“He has made comments about tariffs and what’s going to happen in terms of trade - he talks about China and how we’re going to handle those types of trade relationships - but the proof will happen if he becomes president.”
Mr Maginnis said it was “just a little too early” to make any predictions about the type of president Mr Trump would be, if elected, or how he’d handle any agriculture policy decisions.
“I do know that he does enjoy support in our rural sector, so I think that’s probably going to be helpful for him,” he said.
Mr Maginnis said Ms Clinton had also made supportive comments about agricultural policy issues during the lengthy campaign - but he did not cite any specific policy positions relayed by either candidate.
However, he said overall, US farmers and the agriculture sector were important elements of the election battle and the eventual outcomes.
Farmers are also very well represented in Washington DC, despite the core agriculture states tending to be less populated, with the exception of California, he said.
Mr Maginnis said each US state had two senators which created what some analysts called “over-representation” for agriculture but he described it as “very strong representation of agriculture”.
“That’s just the way that our system is set up at this point,” he said.
“Both politicians are going to be paying very close attention to agriculture and agriculture policy and supporting our farmers (but) in terms of differences, we’ll have to see how that plays out,” he said.
Mr Trump has indicated plans to renegotiate trade deals if elected, like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and North American Free Trade Agreement, to deliver fairer outcomes for manufacturing industries and other sectors of the US economy and not just favour the farm sector.
A strong protectionist stance could also see hefty tariffs imposed on goods imported from countries like China and Mexico if the Trump campaign wins, which may cause retaliation from trading partners.
The Republican nominee has also threatened to toughen US border protection measures - especially building a wall to split the US and Mexico and deporting millions of illegal immigrants.
While US farm groups may not be against tightening security controls on illegal foreign workers, they do fear potentially perverse outcomes may occur to farm labour supplies, if those reforms occur before the guest-worker visa program is overhauled.
Dominant agricultural states like California are heavily reliant on foreign workers to run farming operations efficiently and with the flexibility needed to meet seasonal demands, like fruit picking at harvest, with US workers not as willing to take on such jobs.
Reports say the Republicans may announce a policy paper stating general principles on agriculture early next month, as well as nominating any farm leaders backing the Trump campaign and others involved in potential policy formulation.
Mr Trump has also been vocal during the election campaign about removing excessive regulations that strangle farm productivity, including taking a swipe at perverse rules in California that restrict access to productive water, while delivering questionable environmental outcomes.
The billionaire businessman has also expressed support for increasing legislated mandates on ethanol production to reduce US dependence on imported oils and stimulate domestic energy independence.
But his position on other critical agricultural policies like the multi-billion dollar US Farm Bill, which contains hefty subsidy programs and is regarded as highly protectionist and trade distorting, remains largely unclear.
About 80 per cent of the Farm Bill (US$80billion) is allocated towards the food and nutrition assistance program which aids US food consumers and the poor.
The other 20pc (US$20m) helps US farmers through crop insurance and commodity pricing programs, research and development and conservation measures and support for rural communities.
At its last five-yearly re-authorisation, the Farm Bill was delayed until 2014 due to disagreement in Washington as to whether the food stamps component, or now named Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, should be separated from the farm support measures.
The TPP was signed by the 12 participating Pacific Rim countries including Australia in February but with Mr Trump threatening to kill it off, Mr Maginnis said the trade deal currently faced an uncertain future.
“We’re not sure where it’s heading at this point - it’s been signed by the administration but congress still needs to ratify it,” he said.
“The current conventional wisdom is that it may take until after the election for congress to get together and ratify, the Senate in particular, the TPP.
“Again it’s something that’s unpredictable - anything can happen - it’s not a sure thing at this point.”
Mr Maginnis said while opinion varied on the TPP, it had “pretty strong” and “broad based” support among US agriculture industries.
“I think the TPP is something that the Obama administration is going to continue to push and do the best we can to get it passed because we think it’s a good thing for the global economy and I think it’s a good thing for Australia and the US,” he said.
“I think it’s going to happen; I’m optimistic about it.”
President Obama’s Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack - who Mr Maginnis has represented during his past four years in Australia as well as the US Ambassador - was also speculated to become Ms Clinton’s vice presidential nominee but she has instead chosen Tim Kaine.
Federal Trade Minister Steven Ciobo visited the US shortly after the federal election and held high level meetings and talks on the TPP given the main presidential candidates have stated opposition to the deal, in its current form.
Mr Ciobo said the Obama administration remained “very focused” on trying to drive the TPP through its domestic ratification process in the Congress, which may occur in the “lame duck session” which is the period post-election and before the new president’s inauguration, early in 2017.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we will see the TPP ratified by the US,” he said.
“I would say that the prevailing mood from the Obama administration is one of quiet optimism.
“The Trans-Pacific Partnership does represent a really concrete opportunity for Australia's national interests to be well served, for us to look at reducing the amount of red tape compliance on international trade, a regional trading block that will benefit all 12 countries that are signatories.
“Ideally, of course, we want the US to ratify.”