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323648

Trade war payments skipped specialty crop, underserved farmers

The USDA sent $23 billion in trade war payments to more than a half million farming operations, with the lion’s share of the aid going to row-crop producers, said the Government Accountability Office on Thursday. Historically underserved farmers, such as those belonging to groups that have been targets of racial, ethnic, or gender bias, received less than 4% of the money.

Specialty crop growers received less than 1% of the $8.6 billion that was distributed for 2018 losses, said the GAO, a congressional agency. An additional $14.4 billion was paid under different rules to mitigate the impact of retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agriculture in 2019.

Underserved producers, including socially disadvantaged farmers, veterans, beginning farmers, and limited resource farmers, received a total of $819.9 million for 2018 and 2019, said the GAO.

Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow, who requested the report, said it showed that the Trump administration fell short in its stopgap aid. “We have to make sure there is fairness and accountability so all farmers can get the support they need from USDA,” she said.

A USDA review of 2018 payments, to see if they were accurate, was faulty, and the agency abandoned a compliance review of 2019 payments because it needed to create a COVID-19 aid plan, said the GAO.

It said the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) “would improve its oversight of payments and enhance the usefulness of future compliance reviews for supplemental assistance programs by developing better guidance for conducting such reviews.”

In spot-checking its 2018 payments, the USDA allowed a larger than usual discrepancy — 15% — between actual and claimed production, said the GAO. For traditional crop subsidies, the FSA allows a 10% tolerance. “FSA officials told us that a major reason they established MFP [Market Facilitation Program] tolerance at a more lenient level was to minimize the administrative oversight and workload burden on county office staff.”

The USDA subsequently allowed a 15% tolerance level for pandemic payments in 2020 “without a documented rationale,” said the GAO.

In a previous report, the GAO said Trump appointees at the USDA had exaggerated trade war damage to farmers in 2019 and overcompensated corn and wheat growers — corn growers by $3 billion.

The GAO report, “USDA Market Facilitation Program,” is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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