Farmers’ relationship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture has never been simple. In April 2017, Georgia agribusinessman Sonny Perdue became the 31st secretary of agriculture, and the department declared its vision to be the most efficient, most effective, and most customer-focused department in the federal government.
When he speaks publicly, Perdue emphasizes examples of the department’s work to meet its seven strategic goals. The first three relate directly to producers:
- Ensure USDA programs are delivered efficiently, effectively, and with integrity and a focus on customer service.
- Maximize the ability of American agricultural producers to prosper by feeding and clothing the world.
- Promote American agricultural products and exports.
Perdue is known for likening the USDA’s customer service goals under his leadership to that of Chick-fil-A, but several farmers say they have not experienced a change in their routine interactions with the department. The department encompasses 19 agencies. Many farmers routinely interact with the Farm Service Agency (FSA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS).
Michelle Jones’ family has a cow-calf operation and row crops across three counties in central Montana. She regularly works with the three county FSA and NRCS offices.
In a Facebook post on her Bigskyfarmher page, Jones notes, “Several of the employees have been here longer than I’ve been alive. They’ve known my name and farm history since the week I was born.” She works to maintain a close relationship with the longtime staff and appreciates their depth of knowledge.
Others in agriculture echo her gratitude for local FSA workers. “Those people are great. They probably don’t get paid enough,” says Illinois grain farmer Matt Swanson, adding that staff often gets program details at the last minute and although some offices are understaffed, they still try to be helpful.
In Michigan, Angie Setzer sees the same issue. Setzer works as the vice president of grain for Citizens LLC and is followed by thousands of farmers on Twitter. When a recently introduced program was announced in May, few details were available. Farmers were hungry for answers and flocked to Setzer. “There’s a lot of frustration out there,” she says.
“Local FSA offices are probably not staffed to the level they should be with the workload they have,” she says. “They are saints as far as I’m concerned, but from the top down, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done at some of these county levels.”
Doris Mold has a small farm in Wisconsin. While most of her work with FSA has been positive, some interactions with office leadership have made her feel less respected as a female farmer and professionalism was lacking, she recalls.
In Montana, Jones says the perspectives of multiple county FSA offices can be helpful. However, sometimes the offices interpret programs differently, and that can be frustrating.
“In general, I’ve had good experiences with the FSA, but that’s not saying that I haven’t butted heads with them. I think it’s critical that farmers know your local FSA is not the be-all, end-all,” Jones explains.
After a painful lesson, she’s learned there is an appeal system and there are people in state, regional, and national offices who can intervene if you believe your local office is wrong. Don’t stop communicating and asking questions if you think there’s an
issue with their interpretation, she advises fellow farmers.
Maximize Producers’ Prosperity
The federal government’s financial and regulatory support of farmers has been debated for a long time.
Over the past three years, agricultural commodities have taken hits to both supply and demand. When trade tensions escalated in 2018, the administration responded with the Market Facilitation Program (MFP), followed by a second round in 2019.
This spring, when COVID-19 forced dramatic shifts in demand for agricultural products, USDA rolled out the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). All three programs included billions of dollars in direct payments to farmers.
Perdue routinely emphasizes these aid packages are designed to offer relief to struggling farmers and ranchers; they are not intended to make producers whole. Jones is crossing her fingers this year’s check from USDA will get the family operation closer to breakeven, but she doesn’t expect it to make them profitable.
While she was one of the first to apply for CFAP in her state, Jones is concerned about the way reactionary, ad hoc disaster assistance creates winners and losers by drawing lines in the sand that don’t make sense. For example, wheat was separated into classes resulting in varying CFAP eligibility for producers in different parts of the country, she says.
Jones is active in her local commodity organizations and dedicates a lot of time to working on ag policy. “For the next farm bill, we will certainly look at a long-term permanent disaster program that hopefully has some mechanisms in place for better communication and work between Congress and USDA so we’re not creating these ad hocs,” she says. “The crop insurance system was designed to provide a safety net. The last couple of years have certainly shown where we have some weaknesses in our current safety net.”
In the future, she’d like to see a blend of the past three years’ emergency programs moved into permanent law, doing away with ad hoc direct payments. Jones acknowledges that making policy isn’t easy and must be done within the bounds of U.S. law and WTO compliance.
Not Always Popular
Headlines announcing billions of dollars in direct payments to farmers aren’t always popular. Jones says it’s important for farmers to be open about financial losses they’re suffering, so a more complete picture of the situation can be understood by people outside of agriculture.
She regularly shares about her farm’s business decisions on social media. Program caps of $250,000 look like a huge number, but a farmer had to lose a lot to be eligible for that big of a payment, she says.
Don Carr describes the situation differently. “These folks have from 10,000 to 50,000 acres, are highly capitalized, and they can weather lots of storms,” says Carr, a senior adviser for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a government watchdog. He describes recent USDA direct payments and other subsidies as “deeply unethical” and “grossly inequitable.”
“No matter what subsidy program is put in place, the money always finds its way into the hands of the wealthiest operators, and it always seems to not find its way into the hands of small struggling farmers,” he says, citing EWG analysis revealing that 27,930 U.S. farmers received federal farm subsidies or disaster payments annually between 1985 and 2016.
For 2020, the Food & Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) at the University of Missouri estimates 36% of farm income will come from federal supports. Jones says that’s concerning and not sustainable for farms, noting many crops are below the cost of production.
“You start draining everything out of rural America if you start making farms bigger and cutting down the number of farmers,” she says. “That’s not the solution we’re looking for, but I don’t know what is.”
Even if that’s not what farmers want, that is what USDA is supporting, Carr says, referencing a controversial remark Perdue made at the 2019 World Dairy Expo: “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”
Carr is an advocate for reforming conservation programs over beefing up payments that incentivize production. To make progress, Carr believes the agriculture community needs to be less sensitive about large payments for big operations and more outspoken about the broken system. “Now it just doesn’t really get talked about.”
Marketing, Trade, and Promotion
In recent years, agricultural trade has been in the spotlight as deals were negotiated with China, Canada, and Mexico. News of setbacks and progress, along with historic weather events, have contributed to market volatility.
Through surveys and research conducted by NASS and other agencies, USDA aggregates data on these topics that some farmers use to make marketing and business decisions. Journalists, lawmakers, and professors also use these reports to do
On top of managing her Wisconsin farm, Mold teaches at the University of Minnesota and works as a consultant. In those roles she’s an “information consumer” and finds value in the statistics USDA publishes.
“When policies are decided, numbers make a difference,” she says.
Not Always Trusted
However, you don’t have to scroll social media long to see that not everyone trusts the department’s system.
“I think USDA has tried to educate some farmers, but I think there’s still this cloud of uncertainty or farmers feel there’s some secrecy attached to it,” explains Setzer.
Privacy concerns and fear of misuse keep some farmers from responding to surveys.
“There’s stuff in there I’m not really quite sure it’s any of their business, honestly,” Swanson says. He’s responded to some of the surveys in the past, but says his dad chooses not to participate, mostly for privacy reasons.
Other farmers decline to answer because they don’t trust the results.
“There are a lot of guys who talk about how they don’t fill them out correctly on purpose,” says Swanson. “I’d rather have good data or no data.”
“I’m always cautioning and reminding farmers: garbage in, garbage out,” Setzer says. “I know surveys are a pain in the neck, but you cannot complain about the numbers USDA puts out being flawed if you’re not willing to share accurate information
Although she believes it’s on farmers to give USDA true responses, surveys may not be the most effective way to gather information, she says. “Some of the ways that the USDA works to acquire data when it comes to making crop reports and things are antiquated,” Setzer explains.
Survey answers are subjective, adds Swanson.
Building a Better Future
How can farmers improve this complicated relationship? Quality time.
“As a producer, there are opportunities to serve on a wide range of USDA committees. If farmers have concerns with what is going on with various agencies, they should volunteer and sign up to serve,” Mold suggests.
Serving on a NASS committee helped her become more informed and allowed her to use her expertise to help improve questions on the most recent Census of Agriculture.
Jones has also had a positive experience working with USDA and agricultural organizations to make change. “No, career government officials don’t get out on the farm that often, but that’s what’s so important about growers going to Washington to talk to them,” she says. “It’s not that they don’t want to understand.”
Most USDA staff hold career roles, but a number of appointed offices also exist within the department. “When it comes down to it, it’s always elections,” says Carr. “We all need to vote.”