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How Trump’s Trade Bailout Greased Fatcats And Screwed Small Farmers

Donald Trump loooooves farmers. We know this because he says so. “Farmers, I LOVE YOU!” he declared in December. And we’ve learned that whenever The Donald says something, it’s true — even when it’s not.

These days, he’s loving farmers to death. Trump has ignored the obvious need to get monopolistic price-fixing bankers, suppliers and commodity buyers off their backs. And he’s ineptly playing tariff games with China and other buyers of U.S. farm products, causing exports and farm prices to tumble. The result is that our ag economy is tumbling into a deep ditch, slamming farm families and rural America with a rising tsunami of bankruptcies.

Adding crude insult to economic injury, Trump’s doofus of an ag secretary, Sonny Perdue, laughed at farmers, branding them “whiners” for opposing his majesty’s disastrous policies.

So, needing a political “I love you” gesture, Trump has been sending big bouquets of money to some of his beloved farmers. Our money. Lots of it — $28 billion so far, in what he cynically (and comically) calls the Market Facilitation Program, otherwise known as a taxpayer bailout.

But TrumpLove turns out to be highly selective, with more than half of the government payments going to the biggest farm owners. The Department of Agriculture initially announced a $125,000 limit on the amount any one farm could get, but every Trump deal seems to have a gimmick in it to give a special break to the slickest operators. The slickum in this deal is that assorted members of a family can claim to be owners of the same farm and be eligible for bailout money, even if they do no actual farming and live in New York City! Thus, one Missouri farm family got $2.8 million worth of subsidy love from Trump, and more than 80 families topped half a million in payments.

Meanwhile, the great majority of farmers — 80 percent of eligible grain farmers — got zilch from Donald the Dealmaker. The smaller producers who are most endangered by his export collapse got less than $5,000. So Trump’s “Market Facilitation” is squeezing the many who are most in need while helping a few of the largest get even bigger.

While the Trumpistas are presently trying to plow a multibillion-dollar subsidy into big grain farms, they’re shockingly stingy when it comes to our society’s moral responsibility to make sure the least-wealthy among us get an adequate level of food. Their latest effort in the practice of mass minginess is to try literally taking food off poor children’s plates. Using a tangle of federal red tape, Trump ideologues and bureaucratic minions are intervening to prevent states from providing food stamp assistance to millions of their people.

According to federal rules, to qualify for food aid, a family of three should have an income under $27,000 a year. But with rents, utilities, health care and even food prices constantly rising, millions of Americans can’t make ends meet on such a low income. Thus, 40 states have stepped in to loosen that income restriction so families at least get the minimum nutrition humans need. Far from being welfare moochers (as far-right-wing extremists screech), these recipients overwhelmingly are working families, children, the elderly and Americans with disabilities. The benefit is hardly lavish; it averages only $127 a month, but even this modest outlay has proven enormously successful in mitigating poverty.

Congress actually authorized states to make such pragmatic income adjustments in a 1996 revamp of the law. But look out! Here comes Sonny Perdue again, rising up on his hind legs to proclaim that naughty state officials are using that authority as a “loophole” to circumvent Trump’s federal authority. So Sonny and Donnie are demanding that a whole new bureaucracy of food stamp “eligibility police” be set up to monitor the assets of hard-hit people who’re just trying to get adequate food on their tables. This nonsense will cost tens of millions of our dollars to harass the poor in an autocratic hope of nabbing a couple of hungry families who have a dime more in assets than miserly Trumpistas claim they should have.

What we have here is government by plutocratic authoritarians who’ll gleefully dole out millions to a wealthy family and then just as gleefully go out of their way to deny food to millions of poor families.

How Much Does Donald Trump Love Farmers?

As a farmer told me, “You can still make a small fortune in agriculture, but the problem is you have to start with a large fortune.”

Farmers tend to be optimistic pessimists. They know the odds are against them — the bankers, bugs, monopolists, violent weather and sorry politicians. Yet, they keep at it as long as they can; working long and hard hours, enduring arduous conditions and tremendous stress to nurture the seeds that bring us an abundance of foods. But sometimes, the odds bunch up. Coping with natural disasters is to be expected. It’s the unnatural disasters of rigged economic policies, Wall Street greed and unrestrained corporate profiteering that slam the door on good, efficient family farmers, making it impossible for them to keep producing.

This is one of those times. Aside from the rise of floods, drought, and tornados (hello, climate change), farmers are now in the sixth year of plummeting prices for their crops and livestock. They’re producing more than ever but getting less. For example, it costs dairy farmers on average $1.92 to produce a gallon of milk, but the giant processors pay them only a-buck-32 per gallon.

No surprise that since 2000, half of America’s dairy farmers have been squeezed out of business by monopoly pricing. And now comes Trump’s trade spat with China, which has collapsed the market and prices for grain farmers. Overall, farmers’ profits have fallen by almost half in the last five years. Farm debt, bankruptcies, sales and suicides are rising towards the calamitous levels of the 1980s farm crisis, and concentrated corporate power is fast tightening its grip on nearly all food production, prices and policies.

Indeed, a central cause of the spreading farm depression is the increasing monopolization of all the things farmers must buy (from seeds to machinery) and of the markets that buy from them. The big four biotech ag giants, for example, control 63 percent of all commercial seeds sold in the world; four meat processors control 84 percent of the U.S. beef market; and four global traders control up to 90 percent of the world’s grain sales. Our farmers and their families are hurting, but so far, our leaders, including the president, aren’t helping them.

Speaking of the president, have you noticed how often Donald Trump prefaces his policy statements with phrases like “frankly,” “honestly,” “to tell the truth,” and “believe me”?

More than a verbal tic, his constant use of these qualifiers subliminally admits that being frank, honest, truthful and believable is not normal for him. So, like a carnival flimflammer selling snake oil, he strains to convince us rubes that he’s not flimflamming:

“Really,” he claims with lying lips, “in all candor, this time I’m truly telling you the gospel truth. Trust me.”

Among those who are learning about the truthiness of The Donald are the farmers who voted for him, having bought his campaign promise to stand up for them and restore farm prosperity. Once in office, though, he quickly sold them out. First, he threw a hissy-fit of a trade war with China that ended up slapping down U.S. farmers by drastically worsening the already-low prices they were getting for their crops. Instead of prosperity, the average farm profit last year was minus $1,500!

Then, trying to smooth over this betrayal of the heartland, Trump tweeted out a message to ag producers in December that probably didn’t warm that many hearts: “Farmers, I LOVE YOU!” he professed in capital letters. (I’m guessing he offered the same sweet insincerity to Stormy Daniels after he … well, you know.)

Actions speak louder than words, of course. On March 11, Trump then took action to express his true love for farmers: He whacked $3.6 billion from the safety-net programs that offer a measure of relief to hard-hit producers when crop prices crash. Revealing his plutocratic core, the cuts specifically targeted programs that benefit small farmers — a deliberate manipulation meant to drive more families off the land and increase corporate monopolization of agriculture.

Not satisfied with intentionally injuring family farmers, Trump added insult by calling the dab of support they get from the government “overly generous.” This from a real estate flimflammer who continues to rake in millions of dollars in government cash and special tax breaks.

Far from stepping up to stop this robbery of farmers, ransacking of rural vitality and rip-off of consumers, Congress and Trump coddle the monopolistic robbers, ransackers, and rip-off artists. To help counter their insanity, join forces with the grassroots power of Farm Aid.

Populist author, public speaker and radio commentator Jim Hightower writes The Hightower Lowdown, a monthly newsletter chronicling the ongoing fights by America’s ordinary people against rule by plutocratic elites. Sign up at HightowerLowdown.org.

 

Why Agribusiness Has A Serious Chicken And The Egg Problem

Those who say that we ordinary people can’t have any effect on today’s corporate behemoths should check out two breakthroughs last year by a group the establishment has long derided as somewhere between wacko and criminal: animal rights activists. Members of groups like the Humane Society get demonized, outlawed, sued, and jailed by agribusiness interests for persisting in trying to make life even slightly less awful for animals captured in America’s industrial food system. But 2016 was a good year for those groups … and for the animals.

Let’s look at Perdue Farms. Perdue is a $6 billion poultry giant (the fourth largest in the U.S., producing 676 million chickens in 2015). It has been a major pusher of the industry line that there’s nothing wrong or cruel about breeding birds with breasts so heavy that they can’t stand, or keeping them jammed so tightly in cages that they can’t spread their wings, or denying them access to the outdoors — or even sunlight. But Jim Perdue, grandson of the founder and now CEO, was having trouble reconciling his corporation’s rhetoric with hard reality. After listening to critics, he began discussing alternatives with the animal rights group Compassion in World Farming.

Then, on July 1 — bam — Perdue announced a wholesale shift in his company’s approach to handling the birds, including providing them with lots of sunlight; giving them space to run, flap wings, and play; breeding smaller, healthier birds; and using more humane slaughter methods. Also, Perdue will compensate growers not just to cut costs, but also for enhancing the birds’ quality of life. One of the industry rationales for cruelty is that kindness raises prices and cuts profits. But Perdue is finding that healthier birds actually reduce costs, and that more humane practices attract supermarkets, restaurants, and families to Perdue’s products. Success by Perdue could shift the whole miserable industry.

That is great news for chickens that are farmed for food, but what about laying hens that provide us eggs for our breakfast tables? Until recently, nearly all of the 77 billion eggs we Americans eat annually have come from hellish, windowless egg factories, each containing hundreds of thousands of laying hens. Tightly packed into wire “battery cages” containing five birds side by side, each hen “lives” (so to speak) in a tiny space with the footprint of an iPad.

For a decade, the Humane Society has led a grassroots campaign to liberate these hens through undercover exposes and by pressuring college food managers and retailers like Whole Foods to buy from smaller, more local producers of cage-free eggs. In 2008, the campaign got a huge boost when California voters passed a ballot initiative banning battery-cage confinement, with the most “yes” votes of any initiative in U.S. history. After that victory, the society’s organizers convinced Burger King to adopt a cage-free policy. Next came McDonald’s and IHOP, Kroger and Meijer, Costco and Trader Joe’s — and then, last April, the biggest prize in all of eggdom: Walmart. America’s biggest egg buyer announced a transition to a 100 percent cage-free egg supply by 2025.

But as we all know, President Donnie Trump has named some doozies to his cabinet, but one that stands out as threats to humane and healthy food is Scott Pruitt. He was confirmed as the head of the EPA, which oversees animal testing for pesticides and chemicals and regulating greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution from factory farms. As attorney general in Oklahoma Pruitt tried (unsuccessfully) to give special rights to corporate and foreign-owned factory farms and joined a suit aimed at killing the California law for more humane egg production.

For more information and to help stop President Trump and his appointees from rolling back the progress that has been made in humanely raising farm animals, visit www.ewg.org/planet-trump.

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

It’s Time To Put Food Policy Back On The Table

During the farm crisis of the 1980s, an Iowa farmer asked if I knew the difference between a family farmer and a pigeon. When I said no, he delighted in explaining: “A pigeon can still make a deposit on a new John Deere.”

That’s funny — except, it really wasn’t. Worse, the bitter reality of the tractor joke is still true: The farm crisis has not gone away, though hundreds of thousands of farm families have. The economic devastation in farm country continues unabated as agribusiness profiteers, Wall Street speculators, urban sprawlers, and corrupted political elites squeeze the life out of farmers and rural America.

Remember last year’s presidential debates? Trump and Clinton talked about the needs of hard-hit working-class families, veterans and coal miners among others. But, hellloooo, where were farmers? Indeed, where was the multitude of producers who toil on the lands and waters of this country to bring food to our tables? All went unmentioned, even though economic and emotional depression is spreading through their communities, thanks to bankruptcy-level prices paid by corporate middlemen. In the past three years, farm income has declined steadily, plummeting 12 percent in just the last year. But these crucial-but-endangered food producers were totally disappeared by the political cognoscenti.

Actually, the farmer has long been forgotten in America’s presidential discussion. In a New York Times op-ed, Professor A. Hope Jahren reported on the discovery she made when reading through transcripts of past debates: “Farm policy hasn’t come up even once in a presidential debate for the past 16 years.”

That’s Bush-Kerry, Obama-McCain, Obama-Romney, and Trump-Clinton! Not one of them mentioned the people who produce our food. Jahren notes that the monetary value of farm production alone is nearly eight times greater than coal mining, a declining industry whose voters Clinton and Trump avidly courted.

This disregard for farmers and food policy is not only irresponsible, but also politically inexplicable when you consider that food is far more than economics to people. Purchasing food has become a political act that takes into account cultural, ethical, environmental, and community values. This was confirmed last March in a national survey published by Consumer Reports showing that huge percentages of shoppers consider production issues important:

  • Supporting local farmers: 91 percent
  • Reducing exposure to pesticides in food: 89 percent
  • Protecting the environment from chemicals: 88 percent
  • Providing better living conditions for farm animals: 84 percent

Unfortunately, no matter what We the People want, most of the political class willingly surrenders farmers, and food itself, to industrial agribusiness. That would be that … except for one thing: You! Far from surrendering to the “inevitability” of a corporatized food future, the great majority of Americans continue to push forward with the alternative future of a local, sustainable, humane — and tasty — food system that benefits all.

The ongoing battle for our food future pits the agri-industrial model of huge-scale, corporate-run operations against the agri-cultural model of sustainable, community-based family farming. The big money is with the global goliaths of corporate ag, but the grip the giants once had on the marketplace has been slipping as consumers and farmers (especially younger producers) are making clear that they prefer non-industrial food. One measure of this is the contrasting fortunes of biotech vs. organic production.

The promised “miracle” of genetically altered crops, introduced in 1994 by Monsanto, turns out to have been ephemeral. The prices of corporate-altered seeds have skyrocketed, yields from those seeds have not met expectations, planting GMO crops has forced farmers to buy more pesticides, and consumers overwhelmingly oppose GMO Frankenfoods. Thus, fewer farmers are using the biotech industry’s product: US farmers cut their plantings of GMO crops by 5.4 million acres in 2015, and sales of GMO seeds fell by $400 million.

Not only does consumer demand for organically produced food keep going up, but such major producers as General Mills and Kellogg are switching to greater use of organic ingredients. As of last June, the number of America’s certified organic farms was 14,979 (up by more than 6 percent from a year earlier), and sales of organic products zoomed up by 11 percent to $43.3 billion in 2015, about four times more than the growth in conventional food sales. This rise would have gone even higher, but the demand for organic is now outstripping the supply! Consumers clearly want to buy more, thus creating good opportunities for new organic farmers — and a bright future for agri-culture.

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko