Biggest trade bailout payments went to Southern farms, GAO finds

Ryan McCrimmon
·2 mins read

Southern farmers received the highest payments under the Trump administration’s 2019 trade bailout program, according to an official watchdog report on Monday that’s fueling fresh complaints from Senate Democrats about disparities in federal aid to the industry.

Key context: The Agriculture Department started sending tariff relief checks to farmers and ranchers after President Donald Trump launched a bruising trade war in 2018 that crushed agricultural exports and prices.

The bailout payments — separate from ongoing coronavirus farm relief programs — have totaled more than $23 billion so far. Democrats and watchdog groups have long criticized how the USDA distributed the money among different sectors of agriculture.

The findings: According to a Government Accountability Office report released Monday, the average payment to individual Georgia producers was more than $42,500 — the highest rate of any state and more than double the national average of $16,500.

Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and South Carolina were in the top seven states for per-farmer payments. Payments per acre of farmland were also highest in Southern states.

USDA officials have pointed out the bulk of the money flowed to Midwestern states like Iowa and Minnesota, but those states have far more producers.

“When you look at the dollars farmers are getting per farmer, per acre, the South hit the jackpot,” Senate Agriculture ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said on a conference call with reporters.

Democrats cry foul: Georgia is also the home of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the state’s former governor. Stabenow said that if she were the USDA chief, she “would feel very uncomfortable” about the most money per farmer going to producers in the secretary’s home state.

She stopped short of accusing Perdue of intentionally favoring Georgia, but added, “he certainly put together a program that favored the crops in his state.”

The GAO also reported that after USDA doubled the program’s payment cap last year to $250,000 per farmer, the higher limits enabled an extra $519 million to flow to the top 1.3 percent of recipients.

“This is par for the course,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a senior Senate Agriculture Committee member. “They’ve always chosen their largest corporate allies over small business, small farmers and workers.”

What’s next: Stabenow said the GAO’s investigation into the trade aid program is ongoing, but additional reports aren’t likely anytime soon.

Separately, USDA this month is expected to roll out a new round of stimulus payments for farmers affected by the pandemic.