New USDA Program Shows the Agency’s Disconnect From Real Farmers

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New USDA Program Shows the Agency’s Disconnect From Real Farmers

If you feel like you’ve seen pretty poor USDA performance over the past few years, you may be interested in seeing what the agency is up to right now. It doesn’t get much worse than a USDA chief who basically says “Well, I don’t really know if the family farmer is going to make it in the twenty-first century…(and, well, I don’t really care all that much…)”

Critics of Perdue’s tenure won’t be surprised when they see that the USDA is essentially fiddling as Rome burns – rolling out poorly targeted and insufficiently broad programs to counter the heavy pressures on American farmers, as trade wars and other issues demolish family farming across the country.

In early January, the USDA was promoting a new ‘Rural Development Reconnect Pilot’ program to add better broadband Internet tools to American farms, partially through fiber-to-the-premises.

If that sounds like a Band-Aid on a gushing head wound to you, we agree.

Think about the average small, local farmer – with acreage of around, say, 100 acres, or 50-100 head of milk cows in a dairy barn. Do they need better Internet – or do they need better milk prices, better markets, and less direct competition from big agribusiness? Giving small farms better Internet is like handing somebody a brick when they’re hungry.

Regardless, a story posted by Lynne Hinrichsen, Kansas State Director of the USDA Rural Development dept. in January talks about a $5 million grant being used by a farmer in Kansas to essentially digitize his farming operations.

That’s great for farms with a significant volume and profit margin, but many small family farms will not really be able to benefit from this program at all.

A Veneer of Assistance

For an example of how USDA “farm aid” has been working, take a look at what the Environmental Working Group, an independent advocate of the small family farm, found in researching Trump’s farm bailouts:

“(Reports) show that from Aug. 19 to Oct. 31, MFP payments were about $6 billion, bringing the total for 2018 and 2019 to $14.5 billion. Of the payments since August, the top 10 percent of recipients – the largest, most profitable industrial-scale farms in the country – got half. Three of these farming fat cats got more than $1 million each. Forty-five got more than $500,000 each, and 514 got more than $250,000, which, under the program’s rules, is supposed to be the limit any single recipient can get.”

The richest 1% of recipients, EWG notes, got 13% of all payouts – an average of $177,000 each: a six-figure check. On the other hand, the bottom 80% of check cashers got an average of just over $5,000. Smith & Sons, a Bishop, Texas business, got $1.45 million for a cotton farm that already generates $1 million annually; Deline Farms of Charleston, Mo got just under $1 million in 2018.

But it gets worse:

“Laughably lax eligibility rules allow cousins, nieces and nephews and far-flung relatives living in cities, with no real connection to farming, to cash government bailout checks,” wrote analysts. “Even Trump 2016 campaign advisors and billionaires are cashing in.”

Read that last part again, because it puts the evidently kleptocratic nature of Trump’s USDA (and other agencies) on full display. They’re basically enriching themselves under a thin veneer of altruism to farmers. Why would a broadband plan be any different?

Also, it’s really pretty hilarious when you think about it that the USDA chooses to focus on digital connectedness as a way to support American farmers, given that the US is so far behind other nations when it comes to affordable broadband in general.

“The five leading countries for Broadband Communications Infrastructure are South Korea, Denmark, Ireland, Iceland and the Netherlands,” wrote Gary Arlen for Multichannel News late in 2018. “The U.S. is #18, according to the new study. As for Broadband Access and Affordability, the top five are South Korea, Denmark, Finland, Estonia and Norway; again the U.S. is #18. In Average Fixed Broadband Connection Speed, the top five are South Korea, Norway, Sweden, China and Switzerland, with the U.S. coming in at #13.”

Why is the U.S. not the world leader in broadband? Corporate intrusion, of course.

Efforts to create free high-speed communitywide broadband programs have been blocked at every turn by quasi- monopolies Verizon, AT&T and Comcast.

At the same time, farmers have seen their export markets destroyed, and are now offered checks directly from the USDA as a way to try to offset their losses, which many farmers have said does not practically happen. It’s not likely to happen with a $5,000 check – but if a farm can show that it has some nepotistic connection to a flak like Sonny Perdue or Jared Kushner or even Steve Bannon – they just might get that $1 million lottery ticket!

Meanwhile, Sonny Perdue wants you to tell him about his work at the helm – so much that he created this nifty “Tell Sonny” web page. Go ahead, tell him what you think!

Get to Know Your Farmer Inc. , is a non-profit that knows what American farmers are up against. Our advocacy work supports the small, local family farm – the traditional, natural way of doing business – over big ag and its corporate backers. Help us to keep American farming profitable without accepting the factory farming model that threatens us all. Get involved!

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