Total payments to farmers reached $46 billion, a record. Many received more than $100,000, yet didn't necessarily need the help.



Many Americans could use more federal pandemic relief than they're getting. Some Americans received more federal relief than they needed. NPR's Dan Charles reports on farmers.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Back in the spring, farmers who raise pigs were in a panic. Some of their usual customers, like restaurants, weren't buying. Prices had collapsed. Some hog farmers had no place to ship their animals because workers in pork processing plants were getting sick.


NICK GIORDANO: This is just a grave situation on hog farms.

CHARLES: This is Nick Giordano, a top lobbyist for the National Pork Producers Council, in May on a call with reporters.


GIORDANO: Unless there is a large cash infusion from the federal government, we're going to lose a lot of producers.

CHARLES: Lots of different farmers demanded government aid, and Congress provided $35 billion in emergency aid to farmers on top of regular farm subsidies, which amounted to about $10 billion a year. Money went to hog farmers, but also people raising cattle, corn and soybeans, fruits and vegetables, dairy farmers.

Joe Glauber, an economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute, had trouble keeping up with it all.

JOE GLAUBER: You almost lose track of how much money is going out.

CHARLES: Glauber used to be the chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and he finds it a little disturbing because by the time farmers got a bunch of those payments in the summer and fall, the problems were going away.

GLAUBER: Commodity prices have come back up and actually are looking better than they've looked in several years.

CHARLES: According to USDA estimates, total farm income this year without that emergency aid would have been about average. With the government payments, 2020 looks like it'll be the fifth-highest year for farm income in the past 45 years.

GLAUBER: I think there is a fundamental question at that point. Do you say, well, why are we providing all this additional aid?

CHARLES: Especially since farmers, as a group, are relatively wealthy while millions of other Americans are wondering how they'll afford groceries. I called up some farmers and got several different answers. Chad Leman is co-owner of a hog farm in Illinois that got more than $700,000 in government payments in 2020 according to USDA data obtained by the Environmental Working Group, which is a critic of farm subsidies. Leman says it's really not much for a farm as big as his. He ran up against a cap on government payments to any single individual or farm so didn't come close to covering his losses.

CHAD LEMAN: None of us expect to be made whole. But our ask was, hey, help us get to next year.

CHARLES: Without that money, you don't think you would have made it to next year?

LEMAN: Oh, I think you would have seen significant fallout from the pork industry, significant fallout.

CHARLES: But farmers didn't have to prove that they needed help. They simply got paid based on their previous production of grain or pigs or cattle. The more crops they grew, the more government money they got up to that cap. Ron Rosmann, a farmer in western Iowa, says his neighbors sometimes made jokes about it.

RON ROSMANN: You know, all these farmers were getting together and playing cards, these older farmers. I heard one guy say, yeah, got another check from the government today. Didn't need it, but boy. Yeah, I don't know what to do with it.

CHARLES: Rosmann got some of this money himself. And yet...

ROSMANN: I'm not in favor of it overall because it has disproportionately gone to the largest producers.

CHARLES: Which means those large farmers now have more money to outbid their smaller neighbors when land comes up for rent or for sale - and when small farms eventually give up, it means fewer people in rural communities, less life in small towns.

ROSMANN: We just continue to fight declining and aging population out here.

CHARLES: It's a paradoxical result, Rosmann says. But passing out money to farmers this way can actually hurt farming communities. And more money is now on the way. The latest coronavirus relief package contains another $8 billion in payments to farmers.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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