The report, one of the sharpest congressional critiques yet of the Market Facilitation Program, said five southern states receive the highest average payments per acre under the program - Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas. The analysis by Democratic committee staffers concluded that farmers in the Midwest and Northern Plains have been hurt the most.
It also asserted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has done nothing to target the assistance to vulnerable small, medium and beginning farmers. Instead, it said the agency doubled the payment limits, directing even more money to large, wealthy farming partnerships.
The USDA said in a statement that payments are based on trade damage, not regions or farm size.
"While we appreciate feedback on this program, the fact of the matter is that USDA has provided necessary funding to help farmers who have been impacted by unjustified retaliatory tariffs," the statement said. "While criticism is easy to come up with, we welcome constructive feedback from any member of Congress with recommendations as to how the program could be better administered."
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the program also lacks any plan for rebuilding or replacing the markets that farmers have lost since they became caught up in the trade war last year. She leveled the charges in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that accompanied the 12-page report.
"This Administration's chaotic trade agenda has irreparably harmed farmers, on top of the market instability and extreme weather challenges they already face," Stabenow wrote in the letter signed by 14 other Democratic senators, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York.
The agency has set aside nearly $16 billion under MFP for the current crop year, up from the $12 billion inaugural edition for 2018 crops. The agency has paid farmers over $6.8 billion so far in first installments. According to the USDA, the states collecting the highest overall totals as of Tuesday - more than 60% of the total funds - are Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Texas, and Kansas.
A separate analysis by the American Farm Bureau Federation released later Tuesday backed up the USDA's assertion the dollars have flowed mostly to the Midwest, even though the per-acre rates are higher in parts of the South. The Farm Bureau report said that's because most of the acres planted in crops that are eligible for MFP payments are planted in the Midwest. The group did not address the Democratic senators' claim that the formula is unfair.
The USDA is expected to approve second installments in the next few weeks and could release a final round in January if trade woes persist.
An Associated Press analysis in July found that many large farming operations had no trouble circumventing the program's payment caps. A separate AP analysis last month showed how a farming business owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice - a billionaire who's the richest man in his state - collected the maximum of $125,000 then allowed under the program.
While the senators called on Perdue to "improve" the program before more payments go out, they proposed few specifics.
Until now, Congress had been relatively muted in its criticisms of MFP. Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, sent a less-sharply worded letter to Perdue earlier this month, pointing out several "inequities" and urging him to consider fixes.
The 2018 and 2019 versions used very different formulas for allocating aid. The program originally was based on a farm's production of certain crops. About 83% of the money went to soybean producers because they had suffered the most from China's retaliatory tariffs.
For 2019, farmers get fixed per-acre payments based on their county, varying from $15 to $150 per acre, based on how much the USDA calculated that each county had been hurt. Counties qualifying for the highest per-acre payments are concentrated in the South, the report noted. And the payment caps were doubled, from $125,000 to $250,000.
Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said the report highlights "gross disparities" from region to region. He noted that producers in western and northern soybean country, who typically shipped their crops to the Pacific Northwest for export to China, suddenly took a big price hit because they had nowhere to send their beans. Yet, he said, it shows the money flowed disproportionately to southern farmers.
The USDA could have designed the program better if it had consulted with Congress, Johnson said, because the agriculture committees have experience in minimizing regional and other inequities.
Brooke Appleton, vice president of public policy at the National Corn Growers Association, said the Democratic senators' report, along with Peterson's letter, "raised important issues regarding the impact on northern state corn farmers who have faced additional hurdles due to limited export opportunities in the Pacific Northwest."
The administration has not said if it will extend MFP for 2020, when Trump will be counting on maintaining his base of support in rural America as he seeks re-election.
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