Donald Trump is handing out another $16 billion to farmers who are “winning” because of his trade war with China. It’s a handsome bribe—well over the cost of a brand-new aircraft carrier—but unfortunately for family farmers who are going bankrupt at a rate not seen since the farm crisis of the 1980s, it doesn’t begin to address the issues they are facing.
As The New York Times reports, global markets are starting to factor in Trump’s tariffs and trade wars as if they are a fixed item. After all, there’s been no sign that Trump is making any progress toward actually reaching a trade agreement, and his self-vaunted skills at brinkmanship are only opening a wider and wider gulf, with larger and larger tariffs. The results of Trump’s trade war are also depressing commodity prices, including commodities such as oil, with the price of American crude down by 5%. Trump’s trade war is weighing down the whole world’s economy in a way that affects stocks, affects growth, and affects the value that average people see in their retirement funds.
But no one is being hit from as many angles as farmers. Trump’s tariffs directly and abruptly struck farmers by costing them billions in deals that would have happened before he brought down the door. Importers in China, and not just in China, moved to make deals with farmers in Europe, South America, and Africa who had been looking for just this sort of opportunity to cut into the United States’ dominance in this market. And in the wake of those deals, there was the inevitable secondary effect as prices for U.S. agricultural commodities took a sharp drop. Farmers were left with burgeoning inventories of goods they were trying to push into a declining market at prices well below cost.
Then came round 2. In the hope that Trump might soon reach accommodation and prices would rebound, thousands of farmers decided not to sell grain at a loss. Instead they stored record amounts, filling silos and storage bins across the farm states. But the dispute over tariffs Trump began last spring wasn’t settled in the summer, or the fall, or the winter. While Trump continued to expand the scope of his trade war, genuinely massive amounts of food waited for some chance to be sold.
Instead it began to rain. As winter wore toward spring, record rains and melting snow combined to drown the upper Midwest in floods that were “unprecedented” and “once in a lifetime.” It might have seemed unpredictable, except that several of the areas were experiencing a second, or third, or fifth “100-year flood” of the decade. But ignoring the growing effects of the climate crisis isn’t just a fixture on the right; in some areas it’s actually the law that global warming not be considered in infrastructure planning. A generation ago, farmers might have been been somewhat safer in holding on for a year. It’s no longer true. So it shouldn’t be surprising that what happened to much of that grain was that it was drowned by spring floods.
Farmers who had put away their crops in hopes that Trump would settle his trade war instead ended up with nothing. Or with less than nothing, since they got silos split open wide by water-swollen grain and huge piles of unsalable mush. And for many of them, the losses aren’t protected by crop insurance, or flood insurance, or any other kind of insurance. The same pattern is being repeated this week in Oklahoma and neighboring states hit by a new round of flooding.
So, $16 billion. It sounds like a lot. It is a lot. But this number, which the Agriculture Department says is estimated to match “impacts of unjustified retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agricultural goods,” has to sound good to desperate farmers standing knee-deep in fields of mush that were last year’s crops. It’s just over a tenth of what a normal year’s exports might have earned on soybeans alone … but it’s something. And with $14.5 billion set to go out in direct payments to farmers, it has to seem like a ray of hope.
Except … there are issues. First, those payments are to be made in three installments, the first of which won’t hit until around the first of August. Which means that farmers will have to carry the cost of planting and growing this year’s crops, on top of the weight of any losses from 2018, before they see dollar one. Farmers might borrow funds, but rising interest rates for agriculture-related loans have been a major factor in increasing farm failures. Some banks, well aware of the rate at which farmers are going down and seeing no prospect for improvement in the near term, have become very, very reluctant to extend credit to already overburdened farmers.
The second issue is that this year’s plan is expected to mirror that of last year, when Trump handed out $12 billion to address the problem he created. And under last year’s plan, most of that money went to huge corporate farms, including corporate farms owned by foreign companies, and not to small farmers. In fact, as The Des Moines Register reported, hundreds of Iowa farmers ended up with a payment of less than $25. Not $25 million. Or $25,000. $25. Some payments were less than $5. The average payment was $7,236, which is a tiny, tiny fraction of the cost of operating the most modest farm. And even that number was inflated by the large checks written out for the largest corporate farms.
Trump is handing out $16 billion. It’s a genuinely large amount of money. But it’s too late, it’s going to the wrong people, and it’s still just a tiny fraction of what’s needed to repair the damage that Trump has caused.