City dwellers continue to collect bailout money meant for farmers

Soybeans on a farm


Soybeans on a farm


More than 9,000 MFP payment recipients live in America’s biggest cities, including San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles.

Trade war bailout money intended to support farmers and ranchers is flowing into the hands of more than 9,000 city-dwellers, according to a new analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Technically, the payments, made under the Market Facilitation Program (MFP), are supposed to serve as a financial life preserver for producers who have seen sales dwindle during Trump’s trade war with China. But Department of Agriculture data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that a not-insignificant number of payments made through April 2019 have gone to recipients who live nowhere near farms, including “70 residents of San Francisco, 65 residents of New York City, 63 residents of Los Angeles, 61 residents of Washington, D.C., and 19 residents of Miami.”

This isn’t the first time city residents have helped themselves to subsidies meant for farm country.
EWG calculated its city-dweller count by filtering MFP recipients based on residency in a zipcode within one of America’s 50 largest cities. The results are noteworthy because MFP eligibility rules require recipients to be “actively engaged in farming.” However, a closer look at the official definition of “actively engaged” reveals potential avenues for payments to be made outside the program’s stated intent. To qualify, recipients are typically required to perform some kind of farm labor. But landowners and individuals in vaguely defined managerial positions can qualify, even if they don’t work on-site. All this is to say—and the new findings show—that you don’t necessarily need to be a farmer to receive bailout money meant for farmers.

In June, we reported that hundreds of farms had received far more in MFP payments than the program’s limit of $125,000, through a loophole that allows individual family members to each apply for separate payments. The report noted that the most recent farm bill expanded qualifying family members to include nieces, nephews, first cousins, and their spouses, which could lead to higher per-farm payment totals this year.

All this is to say that you don’t necessarily need to be a farmer to receive bailout money meant for farmers.
This isn’t the first time city residents have helped themselves to subsidies meant for farm country. An EWG report last November found more than 1,000 people residing in the country’s 50 biggest cities had collected trade bailout money, seemingly part of a larger phenomenon where working on a farm is not a prerequisite for receiving farm subsidies.

MFP has faced a barrage of criticism since it was established last year. In May, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal rebuked Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue after the program awarded $64 million in payments to a subsidiary of Brazilian meatpacking giant JBS. Blumenthal also cited Chinese-owned, Virginia-based meatpacker Smithfield Foods’ eligibility in MFP. In July, we reported that MFP disproportionately benefited upper middle-class or wealthy white families.

The spigot likely won’t run dry any time soon. In the latest escalation of the trade war, China announced it would halt all U.S. imports on Monday. In May of this year, the Trump administration announced a second bailout worth $16 billion, the first portion of which will begin flowing “mid-to-late August,” per USDA. So right about now.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.