The numbers paint a rough picture: USDA forecasts net farm income level for 2019 to be only 77 percent of the annual average for 2000 through 2017. It’s down 50 percent from 2013 alone. Inflation-adjusted farm debt is the highest it has been since 1980 and the debt-to-asset ratio for farmers is rising steadily.
US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said on Friday (May 10) that US President Donald Trump had asked him to create a plan to help American farmers cope with the heavy impact on agriculture of the trade war with China. A new aid program would be the second round of assistance for farmers, after the US Department of Agriculture’s US$12 billion plan last year to compensate for lower prices for farm goods and lost sales stemming from trade disputes with China and other nations.
Sanford Bishop and Sonny Perdue go way back. So far back that Bishop, now a 14-term, Democratic congressman from south Georgia, remembers when Perdue, now the Secretary of Agriculture under President Donald J. Trump, was a Democrat.Their friendship was tested April 9 when Perdue appeared before the House Appropriations ag subcommittee to defend the president’s 2020 budget request for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Bishop, as chairman of the subcommittee, oversees every taxpayer nickel USDA receives.During his question time, Bishop roasted the secretary’s plan to move two USDA agencies, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, out of Washington, D.C. No one, he said, favors the move except Perdue.Not only that, Bishop went on, Perdue was moving ahead with his plan despite the subcommittee not receiving a cost-benefit analysis on it that the secretary had promised. In fact, he continued, Perdue’s rush to shuffle ERS and NIFA out of town just “seems to be a solution in search of a problem.”When asked to comment on those facts — especially that no one with any working knowledge of his plan endorsed it — Perdue went full farm folksy: “Mr. Chairman,” he said, “I’m just amazed that all those people you mentioned could all be wrong.” He then grinned weakly. Bishop is just the latest public official to question Perdue on his ERS/NIFA plan. All — like Perdue himself — have seen no evidence to support it because, in fact, there is no evidence to support it. Moreover, Perdue can’t explain it in any terms other than nonsense like “getting ERS closer to its customers.” On May 7, however, Politico, a Washington-based news service, reported that the plan was the Trump Administration “retaliating” against the ERS “for publishing reports that shed negative light on White House policies…” Specifically, ERS “has run afoul of… Perdue… with its finding on how farmers have been financially harmed by President Donald Trump’s trade feuds, the Republican tax code rewrite and other sensitive issues…”
In a sign that their patience is waning, soybean leaders called for talks, not tariffs, in the Sino-U.S. trade war. “With depressed prices and unsold stocks expected to double by the 2019 harvest, soybean farmers are not willing to be collateral damage in an endless tariff war,” said Davie Stephens, a Kentucky farmer and president of the American Soybean Association. The National Farmers Union, the second-largest U.S. farm group, also said that the financially beleaguered agricultural sector needs long-term economic solutions, rather than spur of the moment bailouts from the White House. Building on Twitter posts over the weekend, President Trump told reporters the administration would provide $15 billion in assistance “so our farmers can do well.” He gave no details. A 2018 package sent $8.3 billion in cash to producers of nine commodities.Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts urged a speedy resolution of the trade war. “It is essential to focus on what can be done now,” said Roberts. “These negotiations must find a successful conclusion soon so our producers can realize open and reliable markets in China and around the world.”The administration is quick to promise and slow on details, said economists Brent Gloy and David Widmar, when “farmers and ranchers deserve better” than short-term thinking. “We contend it is exceedingly difficult for U.S. producers to make business and financial plans when the promises are a combination of mixed messages and light on details. However, a strategic plan with long-term, multiple-year payments mechanisms built in – should the trade war continue – would significantly help farm managers and the farm economy.”In some of the strongest language yet by a U.S. farm group, the American Soybean Association said the trade war threatens farmers’ ability to stay in business. The ASA urged the administration to remove its unilateral tariffs and work with other nations to reform China’s trade policies. Before tit-for-tat tariffs, China bought a third of U.S.-grown soybeans. Exports have plunged and the U.S. stockpile is headed for a record 1 billion bushels, a three-month supply.“Our patience is waning, our finances are suffering and the stress from months of living with the consequences of these tariffs is mounting,” said ASA chairman John Heisdorffer, of Iowa.
Employees of the Economic Research Service (ERS), an independent research office nestled within the Department of Agriculture (USDA), voted on Thursday to form a union. It was something of a landslide: 138 in favor to four against. There were a handful of contested votes, but not enough to sway the results. Both ERS employees and union organizers expressed hope that workers could gain the crucial leverage need to push back on controversial, upcoming changes to ERS. In August of last year, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that ERS would lose its independent status and be relocated out of the Beltway. Perdue defended the upheaval at the time as a cost-saving measure. But as my colleague Sam Bloch reported, ERS watchers feared that the move was part of an effort by the Trump administration to weaken an office that often produced research findings that contradict or undermine the White House’s own messaging and policies.“We’ve become an easy punching bag,” one ERS employee told me at Thursday’s vote, asking to remain anonymous. “We do research that doesn’t always align with politicians’ goals. [As a union], we can gain bargaining power to protect the work that we do.” The ERS reports are a critical source of information on everything from farm income to climate impact and food prices, and they often inform the policy decisions members of Congress make on behalf of their constituents.“.Another employee, who also asked to remain anonymous, told me that in the past few months, morale within the office had plummeted drastically. And upper management’s actions didn’t do much to buoy spirits. For example, the employee told me, one former high-level leader had shared non-USDA job listings on the agency’s internal bulletin—as if to say: good luck out there.
Economists in the Agriculture Department's research branch say the Trump administration is retaliating against them for publishing reports that shed negative light on White House policies, spurring an exodus that included six of them quitting the department on a single day in late April. The Economic Research Service — a source of closely read reports on farm income and other topics that can shape federal policy, planting decisions and commodity markets — has run afoul of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue with its findings on how farmers have been financially harmed by President Donald Trump's trade feuds, the Republican tax code rewrite and other sensitive issues, according to current and former agency employees.The reports highlight the continued decline under Trump’s watch in farm income, which has dropped about 50 percent since 2013. Rural voters were a crucial source of support for Trump in 2016, and analysts say even a small retreat in 2020 could jeopardize the president’s standing in several battleground states.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan to relocate the Economic Research Service outside the Beltway has triggered a brain drain of veteran economists, amid staff complaints the administration is cracking down on research that doesn’t align with White House priorities. Perdue’s relocation plan for the agency, which some ERS members believe is retaliation for reports that are unflattering to Trump administration policies, has triggered a brain drain at ERS, your host writes today.A steady flow of veteran researchers has left ERS in recent months, including six economists with more than 50 years of experience who left on one day in late April.The number of non-retirement departures from ERS so far in fiscal 2019 is on track to be more than twice as high as the previous three-year average, according to data collected by employees.Some current and former ERS economists told POLITICO they view the relocation as a form of punishment for the agency’s findings that don’t always align with Republican arguments on issues from taxes and trade to farm subsidies, food stamps and the environment.
For scientists, it’s a significant accomplishment to get your work published in a peer-reviewed journal. The process of submitting a paper, fielding reviewer comments, and revising the work can take months (or years!), and final publication in a respected journal lends credibility to any researcher’s work. So it was odd when the Washington Post reported last week that USDA was now requiring its researchers to label outside peer-reviewed scientific publications with the word “preliminary”. But this wasn’t actually news to me. And it isn’t the only way the Trump administration is undermining the USDA’s important research role. The Trump administration can’t always control what comes out of an objective, independent research agency such as ERS. So it’s doing everything it can to get ERS (and other REE) researchers aligned with what the administration political line.One way to do that is to make it harder for scientists to publish their research or to delegitimize it with new policies such as the “preliminary” disclaimer to which ERS and other USDA REE employees are currently subject. Another way is to simply cut the funding for research that is out of line with the administration’s policy goals. The Trump administration has done just that, proposing steep funding cuts to USDA research, especially ERS, in both fiscal years 2019 and 2020.These cuts would eliminate huge swathes of research ERS conducts. The most recent budget proposal zeroes out research on food consumption and nutrition; invasive species; markets for environmental services; bioenergy and renewable energy; agricultural research investments; international food security; food and nutrition assistance; drought resilience; rural economics; beginning farmers and ranchers; and local/regional food markets.What remains is bare bones. The only research the administration wants to continue, according to its official budget document, concerns farm business, household income and wealth, agricultural cost of production, and farm practice adoption.
Besides the plan to relocate the Economic Research Service outside Washington, D.C., USDA has also clamped down on the agency’s ability to disseminate its finding through academic journals, a union representative says. “The agency is trying to restrict how the ERS employees are publishing papers,” said Peter Winch, who works for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).“They have to get an OK from USDA before submitting a paper for publication, is the change as it’s been described to me, whereas before they didn’t have to.”Winch has been working with ERS employees since late last year to explore the possibility of union representation to help address numerous concerns about how the Trump administration is re-organizing science and research at USDA. ERS employees will vote May 9 on a proposal to join AFGE.“As professional practitioners in a field, the ERS employees would be able to just send the journal articles in their respective field, and if they were published, that was a sign of the worthiness and merit of their work,” Winch said. “Their peers could tear it apart if it wasn’t done correctly. That’s how science works. Now, that’s a change in the research element at USDA, which would put the ERS researchers more directly under the secretary’s office.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley has warned President Trump that his U.S.-Canada-Mexico Agreement on trade can't pass Congress if he retains steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada and Mexico. "If these tariffs aren’t lifted, USMCA is dead. There is no appetite in Congress to debate USMCA with these tariffs in place," Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said