Trump farm bailout checks coming to Wisconsin farmers vary from thousands to a few dollars
About $10 million in payments are on their way to Wisconsin farmers from President Donald Trump’s farm bailout program, with 11 farms getting more than $50,000 each, 237 less than $100, and a few thousand farms somewhere in between those amounts.
U.S. Department of Agriculture data, obtained by the Environmental Working Group, in Washington, D.C., shows the average payment for Wisconsin farmers in the federal Market Facilitation program was $2,145.
The program was designed to help U.S. dairy, pork, soybean, corn and other farmers who’ve seen prices tumble as a result of Trump’s trade battles with Canada, Mexico, China and other countries.
The Environmental Working Group maintains an extensive database of Agriculture Department records and has tracked farm subsidies for many years.
The organization, through a federal open records request, said it received information on 87,704 farm bailout payments, nationwide, totaling $356 million.
It’s a fraction of the $4.7 billion going to U.S. farmers in the first round of payments, but it provides a snapshot of how the money will be distributed under the Trump administration.
The farm bailout program fails to help “the farmers most threatened” by the president’s escalating trade war, according to the Environmental Working Group.
The group also found that the top 10 percent of bailout recipients have received 68 percent of all of the money. And 1,000 city residents, including 85 in Milwaukee, have gotten checks because they have some ownership interest in a farm.
“These numbers match trends EWG has been tracking for years, which indicate that federal farm subsidies tend to benefit the largest, most financially secure farmers — or those who have a financial interest in a farm but may never set foot on it, let alone drive a tractor,” said Sarah Graddy, an Environmental Working Group spokeswoman.
Farmers want opportunity, not aid payments
In Wisconsin, Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy LLC was the top recipient of the USDA payments, with $81,026 for the Kewaunee-based farm.
The Pagel family founded its dairy farm 72 years ago with fewer than 10 cows, a handful of hogs and some chickens. Now, the family-owned operation has about 5,300 cows and barns the length of a football field.
“Overall, I would rather have more trade opportunities and no need for extra aid payments,” said farm owner John J. Pagel.
“Dairy farmers are producing a great product that other countries want. We just need the trade battle to end and more trading to begin. That would give us a bigger market as well as a sense of certainty,” he said.
The payment amounts, set by USDA policies under Trump, are based on a farm’s total production.
Pagel’s Ponderosa, located on 8,500 acres seven miles west of Lake Michigan, is a large operation.
It has more than 100 employees, and the Pagel family owns the Cannery Public Market in Green Bay and also runs Ron’s Wisconsin Cheese in Luxemburg.
“A lot of people depend on our business. We have employees and their families, vendors and a lot of other people connected to us, that rely on us,” Pagel said.
“These trade wars and tariffs have made it hard for everyone in the dairy industry. Small farms, large farms, other businesses, everybody’s affected in a different way,” he added.
Farm struggles as pork markets collapse
Maize N Bacon Inc., a Sauk City hog farm, was third on the Wisconsin list with a $76,608 payment.
That money will help the farm endure some of the lowest pork prices in decades, said owner Jack Wyttenbach.
“It’s been a nightmare. The prices we’ve been getting for hogs have been lower than they were 30 years ago,” he said.
Some of the largest markets for U.S. pork, including Mexico and China, have dried up under retaliatory tariffs that followed Trump’s tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum.
Wyttenbach said his farm, which sends about 35,000 hogs a year to market, has struggled.
“We’ve had to borrow quite a bit of extra money just to keep our bills paid,” he said.
His farm has about $4 million in annual expenses, so the $76,608 from USDA won’t go very far.
But it’s still appreciated, Wyttenbach said, and he supports Trump’s efforts to resolve foreign trade imbalances.
The president “fights fire with fire, so to speak,” Wyttenbach said.
$725 aid payment and a $36,000 loss
About 4,800 Wisconsin farmers are getting the federal payments, according to the most recent figures.
Dairy farms are receiving about 80 percent of the $10.4 million coming to the state, with an average of $2,390, not much for some farms losing thousands of dollars a month from low milk prices.
Wisconsin lost 500 dairy farms in 2017, and about 150 have quit milking cows so far this year, putting the total number of milk-cow herds at around 7,600 — down 20% from five years ago.
Under the payment rates, set by the USDA using commodity-based formulas, it appears that soybean and hog farmers are receiving among the most dollars per farm.
Corn farmers aren’t faring as well, and some in Iowa said they wouldn’t even apply for the assistance given the size of the payments.
Critics of USDA farm bailouts, which have been around in various forms for decades, have said big farms get too much of the money.
For many small dairy farms teetering on the edge of failure, the help could be too little, too late.
Wisconsin is on track to lose more dairy farms this year than in any year since at least 2003, according to state agriculture department figures.
Wisconsin Farmers Union, based on a survey of its members, says a 55-cow dairy farm would receive a one-time payment of $725 from the Trump bailout program, but it will lose between $36,000 and $48,000 this year due to low milk prices.
An 80-cow dairy would get $889, barely enough to cover its electric bill for a month. Meanwhile, it will lose $35,000 this year.
A 290-cow dairy would get $4,905 but stands to lose up to $400,000 this year, according to Wisconsin Farmers Union, a Chippewa Falls-based group that represents mostly small and average-size farms.
Farmers would much rather have strong markets and profitable commodity prices than government payments, said Kara O’Connor, government relations director for Wisconsin Farmers Union.
“There’s no taxpayer funded substitute for that,” O’Connor said.
The Des Moines Register, part of the USA TODAY Network, contributed to this report.
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