Some big farms collect big cheques from Trump aid package

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – When United States (US) President Donald Trump’s administration announced a USD12 billion aid package for farmers struggling under the financial strain of his trade dispute with China, the payments were capped. But many large farming operations had no trouble finding legal ways around them, records provided to The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act show.

The government paid nearly USD2.8 million to a Missouri soybean operation registered as three entities at the same address. More than USD900,000 went to five other farm businesses, in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee and two in Texas. Three other farming operations collected more than USD800,000, and 16 others collected over USD700,000.

Recipients defended the payouts, saying they didn’t cover their losses from the trade war and they were legally entitled to them. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules let farms file claims for multiple family members or other partners who meet the department’s definition of being “actively engaged in farming”.

But US Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has long fought for subsidy limits, and other critics say it’s the latest example of how loopholes let large farms collect far more than the supposed caps.

Grassley said in a statement to AP that some of the nation’s largest farms are receiving huge subsidies “through underhanded legal tricks. They’re getting richer off the backs of taxpayers while young and beginning farmers are priced out of the profession. This needs to end. The Department of Agriculture needs to re-evaluate its rules for awarding federal funds and conduct more thorough oversight of where it’s funnelling taxpayer dollars.”

Farmer Bernard Peterson at his farm in Loretto, Kentucky. – AP

USDA officials said they believe its rules are being followed and that procedures are in place to audit recipients.

About 83 per cent of the aid under the Market Facilitation Programme has gone to soybean farmers because they’ve suffered most under China’s retaliatory tariffs. The programme sets a USD125,000 cap in each of three categories of commodities: one for soybeans and other row crops, one for animal and dairy, and one for cherries and almonds. But each qualified family member or business partner gets their own USD125,000 cap for each category. Farmers who produce both soybeans and animals, for example, would have separate caps for each and could thus collect USD250,000.

But there are legal ways around those caps.

USDA data show the biggest beneficiary has been DeLine Farms Partnership and two similarly named partnerships registered at the same address in Charleston, Missouri, that collected nearly USD2.8 million. They’re led by Donald DeLine and his wife, Lisa DeLine. Their attorney, Robert Serio, said the partnerships qualified legally and probably could have qualified for more if not for the caps. He said each partnership farms around 27,000 acres and is made up of eight or nine partners who all meet the “actively engaged” requirement.

USDA spokesman Dave Warner said the department couldn’t comment on the specifics of the DeLines’ operations but that such a large claim was likely audited to ensure eligibility.

At Peterson Farms in Loretto, Kentucky, eight members of the family partnership collected a total USD863,560 for crops grown on over 15,000 acres, including wheat and corn used at the nearby Maker’s Mark bourbon distillery.

Co-owner Bernard Peterson said it didn’t make up for all their losses at a time when it was already hard to be profitable. The USD1.65 per bushel aid payments for soybeans fell well short of losses he estimated at USD2 to USD2.50 per bushel.

“It’s a big number but there are a big number of people directly depending on the success of our operation in the community,” he said.