Iowa lawmakers blast USDA secretary after reports of Southern advantage in trade-deal aid payments

Corn farmers received far less trade-war aid than cotton growers did, a new GAO report shows. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Iowa politicians from both parties blasted the U.S. Department of Agriculture after it reportedly favored Southern states in 2019 trade-war aid payments.

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

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.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley is a Republican from New Hartford, Iowa.

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

Perdue, a veterinarian and businessman, served two terms as governor of Georgia. He was born in Perry, Georgia. He was appointed ag secretary by President Donald Trump in April 2017. 

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

Georgia averaged $56,732 per farm, while Iowa averaged $26,747 per farm. Larger farms fared better than smaller ones, 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 iniquities and iniquities should be eliminated.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, at a tour in Radcliffe, signs a USDA disaster declaration for 18 Iowa counties. (Screenshot from Iowa Corn livestream)

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.” 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 wants all states treated fairly. “USDA should treat all farmers fairly, and the payment scale shouldn’t be weighted toward one state over another,” a spokesperson said. “While these payments helped farms survive, market certainty is what farmers want most – and that’s why the senator continues to work on increasing trade opportunities for Iowa agriculture.”

Ernst faces one of the tightest re-election races. She is opposed by Des Moines businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, a Democrat, who like Ernst has a farm background.