Before a crowd of some 23,000 assembled for the 2017 Farm Aid concert in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania—about twenty minutes south of Pittsburgh—the iconic country-rocker Willie Nelson offered words of celebration and encouragement: “We’ve been inspired by the hard work of rural and urban people here who are digging in and creating real change. They’re examples of many thousands of farmers across the country who are innovative and resilient, finding ways to stay on the land and make us strong.”
Ignited by the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, Farm Aid has earned the respect of America’s small family farmers by fighting on their behalf for three decades and seeking to provide legal and financial assistance through an annual benefit concert that has featured some of the most prominent names in the music industry. Each year, fans look forward to the appearances of rock heroes and Farm Aid executives, ranging from the aforementioned Nelson to Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews. However, despite the presence of these familiar faces, one could not help but feel that something was different this year. It was, after all, the first Farm Aid of the Trump era.
Assuming a symbiotic, mutually-beneficial relationship between the farm community and the Trump Administration seems a natural concept, likely in no small part due to the Trump campaign’s ubiquitous evocation of family farmers and other communities that have been forgotten and depreciated by those in Washington. As a candidate, Donald Trump tactfully appealed to rural communities; 75 percent of Farm Belt rural voters cast their ballot for his ticket in November 2016. Trump has continued this narrative as president, noting at the January 2018 American Farm Bureau Annual Convention that he was the first president since George H.W. Bush to visit the bureau’s convention, where he claimed, “Oh, are you [farmers] happy you voted for me. Oh, you are so lucky I gave you that privilege.”
However, the relationship between the president’s administration and rural family farmers is far less easygoing than these words might suggest. The Administration’s farm policy has both indirectly and directly disadvantaged small family farmers, the backbone of so many rural communities. By favoring the interests of Big Ag and willingly pursuing policies that hurt rural communities, the Trump Administration is testing the resolve of one of the most significant members of its electoral coalition.
The Trump Administration’s farm policy has clearly favored major agribusiness conglomerates at the expense of small family farmers. In doing so, the Administration has either demonstrated a limited grasp on the nuanced complexity of agricultural policy or has willfully neglected Big Ag’s antithetical relationship with rural communities and the family farms on which so many of them depend. While trends of corporate consolidation have touched aspects of nearly every industry, the agriculture sector has been particularly affected. As powerful players in agricultural commodities continue to expand both horizontally and vertically, our nation’s agricultural decisions have shifted from fields to corporate offices. For instance, four companies control 90 percent of the world’s grain. Similarly, just four processors control 80 percent of the nation’s beef, 60 percent of its hog, and 50 percent of its poultry. As agricultural consolidation continues, small farmers steadily lose shots for fair market competition of their goods, forced to accept the prices bequeathed by corporate behemoths.
But it is important to note that these trends are not strictly limited to those who work the land; research has shown that corporate consolidation has negatively impacted other rural industries, such as those that service farm equipment, consequently decreasing job availability and keeping wages stagnant. At large, rural communities have been excluded from the economic growth experienced by the rest of the nation: Astoundingly, during the 2010-2014 recovery, counties with less than 100,000 residents accounted for zero percent of the net US business creation. Corporate consolidation has greatly contributed to the economic stranglehold placed upon rural communities.
After running a campaign predicated on the reclamation of prosperity by America’s forgotten, one might assume—albeit incorrectly—that the Trump Administration would look with suspicion at further agribusiness consolidation. The Trump Administration has appeared favorable toward permitting the merger of chemical giant Bayer and agribusiness behemoth Monsanto, having conducted a January 2017 meeting at Trump Tower that the two respective CEOs called “very productive.” The deal would consolidate control of over 35 percent of the global market for corn seeds, roughly 28 percent of the global soybean market, and almost 70 percent of the global cottonseed market into their collective hands. The merger is projected to increase aggregate seed prices for farmers by more than 5 percent, with some—like cottonseed—anticipated to increase by 20 percent.
And yet, one would be remiss to strictly frame the Trump Administration’s dubious support of family farmers as a circuitous result of their support of Big Ag. The Administration has crafted policy that has directly disadvantaged rural communities. Take, for instance, the GOP Tax Bill—the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—passed in December 2017, which Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue called “a tremendous Christmas present” for farmers who could “reinvest in their own operations.” However, as research from Secretary Perdue’s own Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service shows, no such present will arrive for the vast majority of farmers, as 70 to 80 percent of the law’s benefits will be gifted to the top one percent of farm households. Remarkably, USDA economists have found that the bill will actually raise the tax burden for the lowest-earning 20 percent of family farms. Additionally, the President claimed that the Administration’s repeal of the estate tax would keep farms within families, despite the fact that the vast majority of family farms are too small to be affected by this tax.
However, not all of the effects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will be so inconsequential. As a result of the bill’s massive tax cuts and current budget sequestration rules, which are set to automatically reign in the federal deficit, the Center for Rural Affairs projects that some $3.8 billion could be cut from Farm Bill programs crucial to family farms and their rural communities. These include programs that offer support to conservation efforts, new farmer assistance programs, and small town infrastructure. This would continue the trend already put into effect by the Administration’s proposed budget which slashed the allotted funds of entities like the Rural Utilities Service used to keep power lines and phones working and bolster internet connectivity in rural areas, a much-needed effort as roughly 39 percent of rural Americans still lack access to high-speed internet service.
The Trump Administration has not only strived to bolster Big Ag at the expense of family farms; it has actively maintained these family farmers’ subservience to the interests of agribusiness, as evident in the Trump USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration October 2017 decision to withdraw from a Farmer Fair Practices rule change long advocated for by the family farm community. Under this rule change, an individual farmer or rancher would simply have to demonstrate that a major agribusiness’s practices were unfairly impacting his business to have sufficient standing in court. In pulling out of the proposed rule change, the Trump Administration has reinstated the old rule’s unattainable standard that required that farmer to demonstrate that the entire US market was being negatively affected by that corporation’s practices. The rule change sends a clear message of disregard and apathy to small farmers, clearing evincing the Trump Administration’s willingness to let family farmers suffer in the name of ever-growing profits of Big Ag.
The President has said that farmers “embody the values of hard work, grit, self-reliance and sheer determination that we need to…make America great again.” It is time that he summons equivalent levels of grit and determination to stand up to the interests of Big Ag and use his bully pulpit to improve rural communities and the family farms. As anyone who works the land can attest, keeping American communities growing is hard work—and empty rhetoric will not suffice.