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Farm Aid Payments to City Dwellers Prompt Call for Limits on Program

Study found more than 1,000 recipients had city addresses

The current reauthorization of the farm bill might become a vehicle to tighten eligibility to certain forms of farm aid. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The current reauthorization of the farm bill might become a vehicle to tighten eligibility to certain forms of farm aid. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Nearly 1,150 recipients who qualified for aid under a $12 billion Trump administration program to offset foreign tariffs on U.S. farm products maintain city addresses, an interest group found in an initial survey, prompting calls for overhauling the program.

The Environmental Working Group argued Monday that the data should prompt lawmakers working on a pending reauthorization of federal farm and nutrition programs to impose tougher standards to reduce the number of “city slickers” eligible for farm subsidies.

Scott Faber, the organization’s government affairs vice president, said an initial sampling of payments also supports an argument for a tighter definition of “actively engaged” that would require investors to contribute personal labor in running a farm.

Of the 87,704 trade aid payments made through Oct. 31, the group found that 1,142 went to recipients with addresses in 50 of the largest U.S. cities, including Washington and New York. The average payment to city dwellers was $881, Faber said.

Faber’s organization crunched data on payments through Oct. 31 on payments totaling $356 million under the trade aid program. The program is designed to cover a portion of losses that livestock and crop producers experienced because of retaliatory duties trading partners have imposed in response to U.S. tariffs on steel, aluminum and on $250 billion in Chinese imports.

USDA, via the Commodity Credit Corp., allocated $4.7 billion in September for direct payments to farmers who could show they’ve been adversely affected by the tariffs and $1.2 billion to buy products including apples and walnuts affected by the trade fights. The group, which is known for its work in tracking farm program payments, got the trade aid data under the Freedom of Information Act.

The current definition of actively engaged allows an investor to contribute personal management, which Faber said could be fulfilled with participation in conference calls where decisions are made about farm operations. The analysis did not identify any members of Congress as trade aid recipients although Faber said 33 current members of Congress have received farm subsidies in other USDA programs.

Faber said the principal farm bill negotiators — Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and ranking member Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn. — could adopt Senate farm bill language by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, that would toughen the actively engaged definition.

The group and a coalition of conservative organizations ranging from Americans for Prosperity to Heritage Action also want the negotiators to reject House farm bill language that would expand eligibility for up to $125,000 in subsidy payments to a farmer’s cousins, nephews and nieces who may not live or work on the farm and House provisions to ease means testing for farms set up as farm partnerships and joint ventures.

The negotiators hope to announce an overall agreement on a 2018 farm bill this week.

President Donald Trump could have imposed tighter payment limits without changes to the farm bill, Faber said.

“President Trump had the discretion to deny farm bailout payments to city slickers, but did not. even though the president proposed to tighten eligibility requirements in his [fiscal 2019] budget [request],’ Faber said.

The group identified Red Gum Planting Co. No. 2 in Ferriday, La., as the top trade aid recipient with $439,120.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is expected on or around Dec. 3 to announce whether there will be a second round of trade aid using the unspent portion of the initial $12 billon fund.

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