Northern senators say Sonny Perdue’s trade-war relief favors South’s farmers

    Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told agriculture reporters earlier this week that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue oversaw a trade-war relief program that favors his native South. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

    U.S. Department of Agriculture Commissioner and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue drew withering criticism this week from senators from northern farming states who complain that the 2019 trade-war relief program he oversaw favors his native South.

    The nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) this week reported that eight of the nine states receiving the highest payments per acre were in the South.

    The GAO launched an investigation at the request of Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

    The money from the Market Facilitation Program was intended to compensate farmers for losses related to tariffs on U.S. commodities during a trade war with China.

    “That’s kind of an irritation on my part not only on this program, but going back to the Farm Bills,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told agriculture reporters earlier this week. “Somehow, Southern agriculture always comes out better than Midwestern agriculture.

    “Whatever was decided was decided by regulation and guidance and the secretary of agriculture,” Grassley added.

    Perdue, a veterinarian and businessman from Perry, Ga., served two terms as governor of Georgia after he was elected in 2002. He was appointed agricultural secretary by President Donald Trump in April 2017. 

    Georgia topped all states with payments of $119 per acre, the GAO reported.

    Georgia averaged $56,732 per farm, while Iowa averaged $26,747 per farm. Larger farms fared better than smaller ones, the GAO reported.

    Iowa, a major agricultural state, received the highest share of overall spending at 11% of the total, or $1.6 billion. 

    Grassley said one of the issues with the 2019 aid program was a lack of congressional advice.

    “We didn’t have a lot of direction on that money,” Grassley said. “I’m sure Secretary Purdue is always going to be reviewing these inequities and inequities should be eliminated.”

    Grassley noted that federal programs guarantee a profit for cotton-growers, but not for corn, soybean or wheat farmers.

    A USDA spokesperson told Progressive Farmer that the aid payments were “based on trade damage, not on regions or farm size.” The USDA accused Democrats of skewing the data and said COVID-19 aid programs will come with more elaborate instructions from Congress.

    Democrats were quick to criticize Perdue’s move.

    “From the start, I’ve been concerned that the Trump administration’s trade payments have picked winners and losers and left small farms behind,” Stabenow said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s unequal treatment of farmers is a pattern that we’re continuing to see in USDA’s COVID-19 relief program. The administration needs to stop playing favorites and start helping the farms hit the hardest.”

    Brown said Trump’s policies have favored big business. “By mismanaging these payments to farmers, the Trump administration has continued to play favorites and betray the small farmers who need help the most,” Brown said in a statement. 

    Jeremy Busch, spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party, said the report shows drawbacks of GOP trade policies.

    “This independent report makes clear that Iowa farmers and producers are stuck paying the price for Sen. Joni Ernst and the GOP’s disastrous trade policies with China,” Busch said. “Not only did Ernst and the GOP leave Iowa’s ag economy bearing the brunt of unstable markets and crashed commodity prices, but they shortchanged Iowa family farmers by prioritizing relief to large operations in other states.”

    Ernst’s staff did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday afternoon. She faces one of the tightest re-election races, facing Des Moines businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, who like Ernst has a farm background.

    Perry Beeman
    Senior Reporter Perry Beeman of the States Newsroom outlet Iowa Capital Dispatch has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing.