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Is Record USDA Farm Aid Another Permanent 'Temporary Solution'?

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This week, the Trump administration announced an influx of billions of dollars in aid for U.S. farmers struggling due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In announcing the aid, President Donald Trump again positioned himself as “a great friend” of America’s farmers, a key Trump voting bloc that was awash in “Trump money” even before the pandemic.

Many American farmers are hurting today. Since the pandemic began, farmers “have been forced to destroy their crops, dump milk[,] and throw out perishable items that can’t be stored.”

The $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, first outlined last month, is “the first big push to ensure the pandemic does not trigger consumer food shortages.” It’s sending $16 billion in cash to farmers and ranchers in various sectors who are struggling due in part to rising costs and falling profits.

Earlier this month, as part of the same U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) coronavirus response, Trump announced the federal government would buy $3 billion in surplus food from U.S. farmers, for use at food banks. That aid is part of the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a COVID-era repackaging of the administration’s oft-ridiculed Harvest Box scheme.

The $19-billion coronavirus package is only about half the total COVID-19 aid earmarked for the agricultural sector.

As these figures suggest, the federal government is using a variety of avenues to pump record amounts of taxpayer money into the farm economy. But many Americans are increasingly skeptical of the payments. And some experts, NBC News reports, “are raising concerns about the very premise of the COVID-19 farmer aid.”

This week, the Environmental Working Group criticized the farm bailout, noting “most of the money won’t go to small family farmers but to the largest and wealthiest farms, which need the money the least.” Critics have also raised issues over the potential for farmers to inflate reported losses, whether and how to pay farmers for crops they haven’t even planted, and which agricultural products should be eligible for government payments.

The food-aid program is also drawing scrutiny. As Politico reported last week, the USDA has awarded millions of dollars to companies with little or no experience distributing bulk food to anyone, nevermind to food banks.

“An event planning company in San Antonio, Texas, known for throwing lavish weddings and high-end conferences, was awarded more than $39 million,” the paper reported. The food boxes were set to begin rolling out this week.

Notably, a good portion of the funding for the Trump administration’s farm payments comes—as Vox reported last month—through “the Commodity Credit Corporation, a New Deal-era subagency of the US Department of Agriculture tasked with stabilizing the agricultural sector through purchases, sales, and direct payments.”

Yes, that’s the same New Deal that President Franklin Roosevelt launched around 90 years ago to help lift the nation out of the Great Depression.

“During the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s,” I write in my book Biting the Hands that Feed Us, USDA Secretary Wallace ”pitched farm subsidies as ‘a temporary solution to deal with an emergency.’ That emergency—long since ended—was the Great Depression.”

Those farm subsidies—which include direct payments to farmers, just like the USDA’s current coronavirus programs—have not only persisted uninterrupted to the present day, they’ve reshaped American agriculture in the process, forcing many American farmers to be responsive to and reliant on federal agricultural policies.

That’s plain wrong, as I’ve long argued. Others agree that annual USDA subsidies aren’t the answer to what ails us.

Nicholas Paulson, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois, told NBC News that farmers need help now, but suggests we need a better game plan going forward. “How long do we need to continue with, and how long can we continue with these multibillion support packages each year before we do something different?” Paulson wonders.

“I don’t want to rely on government money on a yearly basis, no way,” says Kansas rancher Kyle Hemmert, in that same NBC News piece. “I’d rather see a better system.”

If you want to be a friend to America’s farmers and ranchers, President Trump, please listen to Hemmert, Paulson, and others who want a better system. We can’t and we shouldn’t continue to throw money at farmers. Maybe, as I suggested in a tweet last week, we should eliminate farm subsidies altogether. Right now. 

Given the state of the economy, we could position the move—using Wallace’s own language—as “a temporary solution to deal with an emergency.”

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