In Rural America, Farmers Reap What the President Sows

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Corn grows in a field near Murray, Nebraska. 

In the wake of catastrophic flooding across the Midwest, small farmers are reeling from the widespread destruction of their crops and livestock. The Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the Department of Agriculture’s 2020 budget, detailed in the spending plan released last month, would make their plight even worse. 

A Budget for a Better America would cut $3.6 billion from the USDA’s budget—the exact same dollar amount allocated to the department for disaster relief in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. While advocates for small farmers say that the president’s budget is unlikely to pass in a Congress that bent over backwards to pass a bipartisan farm bill last year, this latest budget certainly reflects the current administration's priorities. According to Alicia Harvie of Farm Aid, “it’s completely untenable.” 

“This is the worst possible time for this to hit,” argues Harvie. “At a time when the administration seems intent on providing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, it then asks federal agencies to cut back and farmers and ranchers to tighten up their purse strings.” 

Not only would the USDA budget cuts affect programs that help farmers recover from natural disasters, it would also wreak havoc on the programs that help small farmers get ahead in a crowded field of subsidized mega farms. The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance program and the Value-Added Producers program, both of which help small farmers struggling to access lending and technical assistance would see large rollbacks under Trump’s proposed budget.

Brian Depew, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska-based farm advocacy group, draws a parallel between Trump’s moves and the early seventies when the Nixon administration attempted to shut down the center and its assistance programs. “While Nixon sought to eliminate Johnson's War on Poverty programs, Trump has repeatedly proposed eliminating many of the contemporaries of these programs, such as the Community Development Financial Fund and the entire Rural Development Agency at USDA," he says.

Trump’s budget plan is unlikely to pass intact, but his callous indifference to the plight of farmers beset on all sides by a litany of struggles is a worrying trend. In Nebraska, which has seen flood-related losses of more than $1 billion, farmers have lost entire grain bins, stockpiled with last year’s crop in a desperate attempt to ride out the administration's disastrous trade war. Since his election, Donald Trump has seen his approval rating plummet by 19 percentage points in Nebraska, raising questions about whether the president can maintain his popularity in an increasingly devastated agricultural region.

The combination of freezing temperatures and rising flood waters have hit dairy farmers especially hard. The 1800 dairy cows killed in just one storm in Washington caused a net loss of approximately $4 million and affected more than a dozen dairy operations. To make matters worse, many farmers lack the expensive death loss insurance for their herds.

In addition to animal deaths, extreme weather conditions have also affected hay yield, forcing farmers to spend more of their income on feeding their livestock, drastically reducing their profit margins. These hardships have heaped even more pressure onto agricultural producers who are already coping with shrinking small farm subsidies.  

Beyond the financial toll on farmers, the cuts would also affect sustainability programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program and sustainable energy incentives like the Rural Energy for America Program, which offer government incentives to farmers to create a greener, more sustainable agricultural sector.

The shocks to the country’s breadbasket will soon ripple across the country. “The effects will be felt not only by the rural communities that American farmers call home, but by all of us purchasing food as well,” says Harvie.

With record flooding predicted to impact more than two-thirds of the lower 48 states over the course of this year, now is hardly the time to roll back protections for farmers who’ve seen crops destroyed, commodity markets tanked, and livelihoods threatened by a perfect storm of extreme weather and executive branch incompetence. 

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