OPINION Farmers voted for Donald Trump to address real problems in their lives. He has fallen fall short of expectations, offering piecemeal solutions to matters that require bold leadership and creativity.
Farmers trusted Trump to confront burdensome regulation, to decrease taxes and improve trade. Two-thirds of farmers cast their vote for the Republican, with a similar percentage of non-farmers in rural small-town America also contributing to Trump’s victory in 2016.
Rural voters made their decisions during uncertain difficult times, which have not improved. At the time of the election in 2016, farm incomes were already in decline. Now while true that forecasts for 2019 show an improvement as compared to 2018’s 12-year-worst numbers, that increase still places farmers at about half of what they received in 2014. Meanwhile dairy farmers continue to exit the industry in record numbers in Wisconsin due to depressed prices and overproduction — and trade disputes that have depressed corn and soy prices remain ongoing.
Trump did not create the crisis in farm country, but his administration’s policy vision is woefully inadequate to address it. Looking closer at the data on farm income helps illustrate the underlying crisis in rural America. The U.S. Department of Agriculture figures are divided between on-farm and off-farm sources of income. Concerning farm sources, what we find is that since 2014 farmers have made nothing on average.
Yes, that’s right. Sources of income from activities directly related to farming have either been at zero or in the red during the past five years across all sectors. According to the USDA, that has resulted in more than half of farms to rely on off-farm sources of income to continue. Furthermore according to the 2017 farm census, of the approximately 2 million farms that remain in operation, 105,453 of those account for a whopping 75 percent of all sales.
That farmers need to have a second or even a third job to keep working should strike Americans as unacceptable.
That dismal reality in rural America calls for bold creative leadership. Unfortunately what has been delivered is lacking. Trump has provided bailouts on two separate occasions for farmers. Targeting producers in most of the major sectors — including dairy, soy, pork and wheat — the government has made direct payments to farmers as well as promising to manage a food-purchase and food-redistribution program.
The direct payments have had no impact. Some farmers have reported receiving one-time payments for $10,000, which do little to offset the years of declining income and increasing debt. Moreover four large operators have received more than $1 million each from the handouts. A mega-meat processor based out of Brazil, JBS, took more than 25 percent of the payments destined to pork farmers. Similarly the purchase and redistribution program appears to not have improved farmer livelihoods. Simply looking at the numbers — that more than $4 billion was delivered as one-time direct payments, as opposed to about $1 billion for the food and redistribution program — highlights that improving markets for the future of farming is not a governmental priority.
The situation is not hopeless. An emergency floor price of $20 per hundredweight could be established for family-scale dairy farmers. Similarly the proposal for parity pricing would offset the costs that grain farmers are experiencing. We need congressional hearings on the state of rural America, highlighting the negative effects of corporate concentration in most sectors. They need to consider how to rethink pricing policy; our food system needs anti-trust law enforcement.
Those solutions are currently being discussed by farmer groups and their allies. Considering those proposals, not periodically cutting checks, is the real way to address rural America’s current crisis.