MINNEAPOLIS — When President Donald Trump’s administration announced a $12 billion aid package for farmers struggling under the financial strain of his trade dispute with China, the payments were capped. But many large farming operations had no trouble finding legal ways around them, records provided to The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act show.
The government paid out nearly $2.8 million to a Missouri soybean-growing operation registered as three entities at the same address. More than $900,000 went to five other farm businesses, in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee and two in Texas. Three other farming operations collected more than $800,000. Sixteen more collected over $700,000. And the data lists more than 3,000 recipients who collected more than the $125,000 cap.
Recipients who spoke to AP defended the payouts, saying they didn’t cover their losses from the trade war, and they were legally entitled to them. U.S. Department of Agriculture rules let farms file claims for multiple family members or other partners who meet the department’s definition of being “actively engaged in farming.”
But critics including U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has long fought for subsidy limits, say it’s the latest example of how loopholes in federal farm subsidy programs allow large farms to collect far more than the supposed caps on that aid.
Grassley said in a statement to AP that some of the nation’s largest farms are receiving huge subsidies “through underhanded legal tricks. They’re getting richer off the backs of taxpayers while young and beginning farmers are priced out of the profession. This needs to end. The Department of Agriculture needs to re-evaluate its rules for awarding federal funds and conduct more thorough oversight of where it’s funneling taxpayer dollars.”
USDA officials defended the program, saying they believe its rules are being followed and that the department has procedures in place to audit recipients.
About 83% of the aid under the Market Facilitation Program has gone to soybean farmers because they’ve suffered the most under China’s retaliatory tariffs. The program sets a $125,000 cap in each of three categories of commodities: one for soybeans and other row crops, one for pork and dairy, and one for cherries and almonds. But each qualified family member or business partner gets their own $125,000 cap for each category. Farmers who produce both soybeans and hogs, for example, would have separate caps for each and could thus collect $250,000.
Data provided to AP from the USDA show that the biggest beneficiary has been the DeLine Farms Partnership and two similarly named partnerships registered at the same address in Charleston, Missouri, that collected nearly $2.8 million combined. They’re led by Donald DeLine and his wife, Lisa DeLine. They referred calls to their attorney, Robert Serio of Clarendon, Arkansas, who said the three partnerships qualified legally and probably could have qualified for more if not for the caps. He said each partnership farms around 27,000 acres and is made up of eight or nine partners who all meet the “actively engaged” requirement.
At Peterson Farms in Loretto, Kentucky, eight members of the family partnership collected a total $863,560 for crops they grow on over 15,000 acres in seven counties, including wheat and corn used at the nearby Maker’s Mark bourbon distillery.
Co-owner Bernard Peterson said that it didn’t make up for all their losses at a time when it was already hard to be profitable. The $1.65 per bushel aid payments for soybeans fell well short of losses he estimated at $2 to $2.50 per bushel, factoring in the loss of the Chinese market that took years to develop.