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Sweet Equity: Ohio Valley Farmers Tapping Into Tradition

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Eastern Kentucky’s steep terrain helps capture sap efficiently, explains Seth Long. Photo: Sydney Boles, Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

When Seth Long first began experimenting with maple syrup production, he tapped hollow pegs called spiles into individual trees, collected drips of sap in milk jugs, and carried each gallon down the steep mountainside on foot.

Listen to the story.

Now, Long rides an open-air buggy up muddy switchbacks to a 500-gallon collection tank from which translucent blue tubes branch out like arteries. There, gallons of sap accumulate from Long’s 270 maple trees before they flow through those tubes 900 feet down the mountain to Long’s grant-funded sugar shack. A shared-use reverse osmosis machine removes most of the water before the sap enters the evaporator to boil for hours until it turns into thick, dark maple syrup.

“Some of the sap is travelling 2,400 feet before it gets down to our evaporator,” Long said.

Maple sap flows through tubing on Long’s farm. Courtesy: Sydney Boles, Ohio Valley ReSource

Collecting sap the old-fashioned way, 14 gallons of sap was a big day, Long said. Now, three seasons into mechanized production, Long estimates his network of tubes, tanks and gauges can process 800 gallons per day.

“When we were introduced to the tubing, it kind of changed everything,” Long said. “Now I can get sap off that tree up there way on that hilltop and never touch it until it’s down at the evaporator.”

Long is the president of the Kentucky Maple Syrup Association, a year-old group of maple syrup producers hoping to put the sweet concoction on the map in the Bluegrass State. Long and his wife Sheryl run the 50-acre SouthDown Farm in Letcher County. The pair sells vegetables, jams and baked goods at local supermarkets and to individual buyers. Long said that in 2018, with 200 taps operating, the family produced about $3,200 worth of finished maple products. It’s far from enough to sustain a family, but it’s extra income at a time of the year when not much else is happening on the farm.

“What we’re doing here in eastern Kentucky with maple syrup is kind of calling back a distant memory,” Long said.

He and other maple producers in the region view maple syrup as more than just another crop. For them, it’s one sweet part of a new, decentralized economy that’s capitalizing on a long tradition.

Necessity to Choice

Appalachia has a deep history of small-scale agriculture, from regional crops like sorghum to the cultivation of heirloom beans. Historians say maple production in the Ohio Valley dates back to Native American communities tapping maples long before the arrival of Europeans. Ohio Valley residents regularly tapped maples for personal use through World War II, when sugar rations made syrup a valuable commodity.

“Some of that has been lost,” said Kathlyn Terry, executive director of Appalachian Sustainable Development.  “I’ve heard people share, ‘I’m not ever breaking beans. I’m not going to do it, because I don’t have to.’ And that was a sign of success, that you didn’t have to.”

Appalachian Sustainable Development is a nonprofit organization that uses agriculture as a means of economic development in the Appalachian region. Terry said she’s excited about the potential of non-timber forest products for hilly, forested regions like eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Maple syrup is a non-timber forest product, as are herbs, ramps, and mushrooms.

Rich Flanigan first produced maple syrup to give away as a wedding gift before he went commericial. Photo: Sydney Boles,Ohio Valley ReSource

Rich Flanigan first produced maple syrup to give away as a wedding gift before he went commercial.

Terry pointed to a revival of traditional agriculture and a new appreciation for Appalachian cuisine, with books like Ronni Lundy’s “Victuals” giving renewed importance to traditional foodways. “Now we’re seeing people recognize, ‘Wow, we really lost something by stepping away from that.’ And in addition to losing the skills and the knowledge, they lost a connection to their history.”

SouthDown’s Seth Long agreed. “They did it in the old days out of necessity. What if we did it as an economic driver?”

Long’s maple stand sits atop an old surface coal mine site. Maple trees are faster-growing than some other local tree species, so they’re often the first to reach maturity on abandoned mines. Long finds satisfaction in doing small-scale agriculture on land that was once home to an extractive industry.

Long said even a few decades ago, most people dismissed farming as unnecessary in eastern Kentucky, but now there was more openness to a diverse economy. “This is something we can do that can make a real difference, that can have a real economic impact to the region.”

Big Potential

Northeastern states like Vermont, New York and Maine produce the vast majority of American maple syrup. Ohio produces far less, but still consistently ranks among the top maple-producing states in the country, with 708 producers reporting in the last agriculture census.

(Experts say there are likely far more small-scale producers, since they are less likely to be counted in official data. All that makes tracking maple production a particular challenge.)

West Virginian producers are building an agritourism economy around the novelty of the seasonal crop. And producers in Kentucky are just beginning to explore how big maple could be.

Shad Baker, the agriculture extension agent in Letcher County, Kentucky, was always looking for ways to make the best of eastern Kentucky’s hilly, forested terrain. He knew that agriculture in Letcher County would never be large-scale, high-volume production, but rather multiple niche crops that didn’t need much flat land.

“My mom worked in the mines,” Baker said, “And we had this old mining sticker that said, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’ Well, maple syrup is a great example of a bird in the hand.”

Although Kentucky and West Virginia are not traditional maple country, the particularities of the landscape make the crop an unlikely fit. The steep grade means there’s no need for the costly vacuum systems often used in more traditional maple states like Vermont and New York.

Sap flows when the days are warm and the nights are cool, so Kentucky and West Virginia have a longer production season and more frequent freeze-thaw cycles. And, Baker said, maples release sap in January and February, a time when a small farm operation wouldn’t traditionally be able to turn a profit.

“I always tell people they can put a TV in their sugar shack and watch UK basketball while they evaporate,” Baker said with a laugh.

There are downsides. Appalachia’s impressive biodiversity means maple trees are more spread out among other species, requiring more effort to connect them to one another. And critically, sap from maple trees in Appalachia has a lower sugar content than sap from trees in traditional maple country, which means producers have to spend much more time boiling the sap or invest in an expensive reverse osmosis machine. A particularly low-sugar season can devastate profits.

In rural Letcher County, with its population of about 22,000, Baker estimates there are about eight producers in the county alone who were on their way to having commercial-sized operations, which is generally understood to be 500 taps or more. As many as 12 more maple syruping as a hobby, and that’s fine, Baker said. Maple syrup doesn’t have to be for everyone.

“It’s better for us in the long run if we’re diversified,” he said. “That way if the market changes or you lose your competitive advantage, then you’ve got other things to fall back on.”

Baker teaches maple producers to make value-added goods like maple candy, which can triple the value of a gallon of syrup. His office has purchased processing equipment to help producers make syrup at scale without investing too much money up-front. He wants to encourage hobbyists just as much as professionals like Long. “Maple syrup could easily be 50 percent of the ag output in Letcher County,” he said.

Producers in West Virginia open their sugar snacks in a state-wide agritourism event. Photo: Sydney Boles,Ohio Valley ReSource

Maple Days

Across the state line in West Virginia, maple producers have capitalized on maple syrup’s niche appeal to create Maple Days, a popular agritourism event where farmers across the state open their doors to share their knowledge, sell their goods, and spread excitement about the new industry.

At Flanigan Family Maple in Prichard, West Virginia, Rich Flanigan has scaled up from a few hand-tapped trees to a 470-tree operation, and plans to grow to 1,000 taps next season. A full-time forester for a land-management company, Flanigan processes sap on nights and weekends during maple’s short production season. In a full day, he could process up to 2,000 gallons of sap, or roughly 50 gallons of syrup.

At Flanigan’s Maple Day open house, visitors mill about, peering into Flanigan’s evaporator and gushing over samples of homemade maple pies and cookies. Flanigan takes guests on tours of his operation. But the most exciting attraction is the cotton candy machine, where maple sugar enters and puffy clouds of spun sugar emerge. The machine has paid for itself multiple times over, Flanigan said; the cotton candy is a best-selling, value-added product.

Value-added goods like maple cotton candy can triple the profit from one gallon of syrup. Photo: Sydney Boles,Ohio Valley ReSource

Indeed, fellow maple syrup producer Greg Christian comes up the hill from his own maple day event, a pancake breakfast in a local church. Christian has sold out of cotton candy and needs to buy 10 more bags for his guests.

“This industry is a labor of love,” Christian said. He works full-time as an engineer, but he says the profits from his maple syrup and honey operations add significantly to the family’s income.

For him, turning a hobby into a business was worth it for the joy it brought his family. He loved spending quality time in the sugar shack with his father, and was excited about sharing the experience with his young daughter as she grew up.

Taking Root

Seth Long says the next step for the Kentucky Maple Syrup Association is to get Kentucky added to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s maple syrup program, which would formalize the crop as part of the state’s agriculture output.

But following the 2017 national agricultural census, six states with higher production than Kentucky, including Ohio and West Virginia, were slated for removal from the program because their production numbers were too small.

Charmaine Wilson, state statistician for the USDA’s West Virginia statistics office, said production is growing “slowly but steadily” in the state, but West Virginia still accounts for a small percentage of the country’s total supply. Removal from USDA statistical programs is routine for niche crops.

Wilson acknowledged the loss of up-to-date data could be a challenge for producers. “Data is basically the info you need to put in a grant to justify getting money you need for a program. Data lets the legislators know how relevant a crop is in West Virginia. Data gives you that drive to get what you want when it comes to making laws.”

Maple syrupers in the Ohio Valley don’t expect maple syrup to single-handedly solve the region’s economic woes, but view the product as one part of a diverse, sustainable economy.

Maple syrup is “renewable, it’s long-term, it’s reliable, and it’s non-extractive,” said Letcher County’s Shad Baker. “This can’t be taken from us.”

Agriculture

Chicken Farmers Thought Trump Was Going to Help Them. Then His Administration Did the Opposite.

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When Weaver bought his farm, he expected the income from his chicken houses would help him afford a little more land and supplement his retirement. Instead, he said, everything he earned from the chicken operation had to go back into new investments that the processing company required. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

The Agriculture Department is barely enforcing regulations on big meat companies.

By late 2016, many of the nation’s 25,000 chicken farmers said they had grown bitterly frustrated by the administration of President Barack Obama.

Under Obama, top officials had promised to help farmers by tightening regulations on meat processing companies, which for decades had been growing bigger and more powerful. The industry consolidation extended to beef, dairy and pork as well as poultry, but the Obama administration was particularly concerned about the effects on farmers who raise chickens on contract for giants such as Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride.

Farmers complained that they had been lured into the business with rosy profit projections only to discover that the processing companies — which they depend on for supplies of chicks and feed — could suddenly change their contract terms to impose additional costs or drop them for any reason.

By the time the Obama administration finally pushed through the rules meant to address these problems in December 2016, Donald Trump, a Republican, had won the White House, backed by many farmers who said they had been let down by Obama, a Democrat.

Now, some say their expectation that Trump would be different may have been misplaced.

Over the last two years, Trump appointees have not only reversed the regulations put in place at the end of Obama’s presidency, they have retreated from enforcing the preexisting rules. The Trump administration dissolved the office charged with policing meat companies for cheating and defrauding farmers. Fines for breaking the rules dropped to $243,850 in 2018, less than 10% of what they were five years earlier.

“The chicken company cost me my ability to feed my children and pay our bills,” said Tony Grigsby, a retired cop in Alabama who recently quit chicken farming. Grigsby identifies as a Republican and enthusiastically supported Trump, but he said he wished Trump hadn’t scrapped Obama’s regulations. “I hear the president saying he’s doing things for the American farmer,” he said, “but it’s almost like it’s only a certain percentage.”

The White House declined to respond to questions about its decisions related to the meat industry, and the USDA declined to provide an interview with the top enforcement official. A USDA spokesman said the agency “is committed to supporting the president’s commitment to reprioritize spending and redefine the proper role of the federal government.”

The National Chicken Council, which represents the big chicken companies, has cheered the Trump administration’s rollback of the proposed regulations, saying the rules would have cost the industry — and, by extension, consumers — billions of dollars.

“Companies have waiting lists of potential farmers that want to partner with them to raise birds,” Tom Super, a spokesman for the trade group, said.

The administration’s moves underscore its ties with the meat industry. One of the largest donations supporting Trump during the campaign was a $2 million super PAC contribution from a poultry magnate, and several industry stalwarts took positions with the Trump transition team or in the Agriculture Department.

The administration’s siding with big meat companies over small farmers is already becoming campaign fodder for Trump’s opponents. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have vowed to restore the Obama-era regulations and dust off atrophied antitrust laws to break up big meat companies. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, is promoting the creation of an independent agriculture regulator, akin to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Weaver at his farm in West Virginia. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

Chicken farmers who considered themselves staunch Trump supporters say their worsening circumstances since he took office are making them reconsider their votes. Mike Weaver, a West Virginia farmer, said he gave up raising chickens this year after the company wanted him to waive his right to sue — something the Obama administration’s rules would have prevented.

“I made excuses for him for a while, thinking he’s going to eventually get a grasp on the dire situation small family farmers are in,” Weaver said of Trump. “It hasn’t happened yet. If it doesn’t happen by the next election, I’m going to tell everybody some of the promises he made were never kept and I don’t see it changing.”


The main law regulating meatpackers was passed almost a century ago after a Federal Trade Commission investigation found that five companies had a stranglehold over the country’s meat supply and used it to fix prices, crush competition and defraud farmers and consumers.

The Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 prohibited meatpackers from engaging in unfair and deceptive practices, manipulating prices, creating monopolies or giving undue preference to particular people, businesses or places. The law’s scope expanded over the next several decades to apply to livestock dealers, live poultry dealers, swine contractors and other related businesses.

Eventually, however, courts, the Justice Department, the FTC and the USDA softened their stance on consolidation. From 1986 to 2016, the top four companies’ market share rose from 55% to 84% in beef processing, 33% to 66% in pork, and 34% to 50% in chicken, according to USDA data. Counting the fifth-largest chicken company, the top firms control 61% of the market.

The industry says consolidation has improved productivity, allowing the U.S. to grow more food using less land and labor.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Congressional Research Service

But another upshot of these changes is that the five biggest chicken companies — Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms, Perdue Farms and Koch Foods — exert “such comprehensive control” over the contractors who raise chickens for them that the Small Business Administration’s inspector general said these farmers should no longer qualify as independent small businesses. (The SBA hasn’t decided whether to follow that recommendation.)

Chicken companies contract with local farmers to raise and care for birds for several weeks until they’re ready for slaughter. The farmers bear the cost of housing the birds, equipment and fuel. The companies, in addition to delivering chicks and feed, rank the farmers based on how plump their birds get and pay accordingly. This so-called “tournament system” rewards the most efficient producers, the companies argue, but farmers say the companies control key variables, such as who receives the healthiest chicks and the most nutritious feed, and, thus, who comes out on top.

One clear indicator of companies’ growing leverage over farmers: Farmers’ average pay rose by just 2.5 cents a pound from 1988 to 2016, while the wholesale price of chicken increased by 17.4 cents a pound, data from the USDA and the National Chicken Council shows.

In the early years of the Obama administration, top officials visited farmers in Iowa, Alabama and Wisconsin — places where the Tea Party backlash was giving Democrats trouble with white working-class voters — and promised help to those who said the system was rigged against them.

“This is a top priority for today’s Department of Justice,” Attorney General Eric Holder told the crowd in an auditorium at Alabama A&M University in May 2010.

Weaver spoke at a hearing that the Justice and Agriculture departments held in Alabama in 2010. He spent hundreds of hours rallying support and contacting lawmakers about the Obama administration’s proposed regulations on meat companies. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

Farmers at the Alabama meeting detailed how chicken companies dictated contract terms and how they were powerless to resist, even if the terms were financially ruinous.

“Either I sign it or I ain’t got no chickens,” Garry Staples from Steele, Alabama, said at the hearing. “Without any chickens, I can’t pay any bills. I can’t pay my mortgage because chicken houses are designed for one thing: grow chickens.”

Staples said he was risking his livelihood just to be there, since the companies were known to use the tournament system to punish farmers who spoke out. Some farmers read messages on behalf of others who were too afraid to come.

The Justice Department’s top antitrust enforcer, Christine Varney, told Staples she would have his back. “Mr. Staples, let me say, I fully expect you will not experience retaliation by virtue of your presence today,” Varney said at the hearing. “But if you do, you call me at this number because I want to know about it.” The audience clapped and cheered. (When Staples tried to call Varney a few years later, he discovered she’d left the Justice Department for a partnership at the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore. She declined to comment.)

Ultimately, the meetings and promises didn’t lead to action by the Justice Department. In 2012, the Antitrust Division issued a 24-page report summarizing farmers’ concerns but concluding that many, or possibly most, of them “fall outside the purview of the antitrust laws.”

The USDA, however, proposed regulations in June 2010 designed to address many of the chicken farmers’ chief complaints. The rules would clarify prohibited practices, such as retaliating against farmers and terminating their contracts without notice. They would make it easier for farmers to sue, without their having to show that companies were harming competition across the industry, an almost impossibly high bar to clear. And they would restrict chicken companies from using the tournament system to mislead farmers about their projected income or to favor some farmers over others by providing unequal quality of chicks and feed.

“The rules addressed fraud, bad faith, retaliation and denial of due process,” said Dudley Butler, a Mississippi lawyer who helped develop the new rules in the USDA during the Obama administration.


The meat industry opposed the proposed regulations and lobbied Congress to block them. Meatpackers spend more than $4 million a year on lobbying, and the top recipient of their campaign contributions in the 2014 House elections was Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican who led the agriculture appropriations subcommittee. The House Appropriations Committee also included Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican whose district is home to Tyson Foods, the biggest chicken company.

When annual funding bills made their way through Kingston’s and Womack’s panels, lawmakers inserted a prohibition against USDA staff spending any time to work on finishing the regulations. Republicans on the Appropriations Committee said the rules would “allow harmful government interference in the private market for the livestock and poultry industry.”

Spokespeople for Womack and Kingston didn’t answer requests for comment. Kingston retired from Congress in 2015 and became a lobbyist.

With Congress barring the USDA from working on the regulations, the Obama administration could not put them into effect. At a 2014 meeting with farmers who supported the regulations, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told them they’d been outgunned by the industry. “You don’t have enough horses,” Vilsack said, according to two people present: Joe Maxwell, executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, a populist advocacy group for farmers; and Chris Petersen, a hog farmer from Clear Lake, Iowa. Vilsack didn’t respond to requests for comment. (He’s now head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which did not have a position on the regulations.)

Since Trump took office, the Agriculture Department has scaled back enforcing rules against meat processing companies that cheat and defraud farmers. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Just before Obama left office, Congress stopped preventing the USDA from working on the regulations (in part because of public outcry over a television segment by the comedian John Oliver). The Obama administration raced to finish the regulations before Trump’s inauguration.

In December 2016, the USDA released a watered-down version of its 2010 proposal. The agency published an interim final rule on making it easier for farmers to sue. The agency also proposed a rule spelling out deceptive practices and another against using the tournament system to treat farmers unequally. But under the legal process for implementing new regulations, these rules couldn’t take effect for several more months. That left them vulnerable to being changed by the incoming administration.


After doing away with the Obama administration’s interim final rule and proposed rules, the Trump administration says it will propose a new regulation this summer. The USDA has been holding talks with industry groups to discuss the new policy. Farmers and their advocates fear the new regulations could be even more favorable to big meat companies than the status quo, according to Steve Etka, who lobbies for small farmers. Some in the industry, though, say they hope the administration will ditch its rulemaking effort entirely.

“We’d love to see them do nothing,” Colin Woodall, a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said. “The action the secretary took to stop this is exactly what we wanted. We believe the USDA’s efforts are better focused on implementing and enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act as it exists.”

But that’s not happening either. The staff in the office responsible for enforcing the law has dwindled to 137, from 166 in 2010. In 2017, the most recent data available, the office finished 1,873 investigations, down from 2,588 in 2012. The office suspended five people and companies for violating the Packers and Stockyards Act in 2017, down from 34 in 2013.

Source: USDA
* The 2018 figure is based on preliminary case data on the USDA’s website. The final tally is not yet available. (Source: USDA)

The USDA declined to allow ProPublica to interview Stuart Frank, director of the Packers and Stockyards Division. In a statement, the department said compliance varies over time depending on economic conditions, and penalties depend on severity and the violator’s “ability to pay and stay in business.”

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue also has eliminated the enforcement office as an independent administration within the USDA, moving it under the Agricultural Marketing Service, the branch of USDA whose primary mission is facilitating sales for big agriculture companies. In a memo, he described the reorganization as “Improving Industry Engagement.”

“That’s outrageous,” said Weaver, the West Virginia farmer who spoke at the 2010 Alabama hearing. “How’s the agency that supports the industry and helps them increase revenue going to put the guys out there to police those companies and make them do the right thing?”

Weaver started growing chickens 15 years ago, after retiring from being a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He bought a farm in Fort Seybert, sheltered between Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington National Forest, expecting that the income from his chicken houses would help him afford a little more land and supplement his retirement. Instead, he said, everything he earned from the chicken operation had to go back into new investments that the company required in order to keep receiving flocks to raise.

Weaver dedicated hundreds of hours to rallying support and contacting lawmakers about the Obama administration’s proposed regulations. “I can’t tell you how disappointed we were,” he said. “Obama bowed to industry like all politicians. They made all kinds of promises and nothing was done.”

Weaver said he thought Trump would be different. He wasn’t another politician, he was a businessman. He said he would end business as usual in Washington and make things fair for the little guy. That was a big reason why Weaver voted for Trump.

Last year, Weaver received a new contract from the company he grew for, Pilgrim’s Pride, a subsidiary of JBS, the world’s largest meat company. The new contract required farmers to drop all legal claims against the company and forbade them from participating in class-action lawsuits.

Weaver wouldn’t accept that, since he is part of a federal lawsuit in Oklahoma alleging that Pilgrim’s Pride, Koch Foods, Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms and Perdue Farms conspired to hurt farmers by fixing chicken prices. The companies said the farmers failed to demonstrate any illegal conduct. A judge has not yet ruled on whether the case can proceed.

The regulations proposed by the Obama administration would have prevented Pilgrim’s Pride from forcing Weaver to waive his litigation rights. But since those rules were blocked, Weaver was on his own.

Weaver crossed out the offending provisions and signed. Pilgrim’s Pride rejected it. A spokeswoman for JBS, which owns Pilgrim’s Pride, said farmers who opted out of the new contract could remain on the old contract. Weaver said he couldn’t afford to continue under the old contract, which paid less, so he had his last flock in January. He’s done with chicken farming.

“I miss it like a toothache,” he said.

But Weaver hasn’t given up on trying to get Trump’s attention. He wrote an open letter to Trump published on the website of Fox News, lamenting the decision to overturn the Obama administration’s regulations and asked Trump to uphold his campaign promises: “As farmers, with families who depend on us, we are dismayed by the move and we’re calling on President Trump to make good on his campaign pledge — to drain the swamp of big meat lobbyists who continue to cut bad deals that hurt rural economies and families.”

Weaver is still hoping to draw Trump’s attention to family farmers’ struggles. Otherwise, he said, “I’m going to tell everybody some of the promises he made were never kept and I don’t see it changing.”(Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

Weaver also made a personal appeal to Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law. He met her at a July 2017 event in Washington with the U.S. Humane Society, since she is vocal about animal welfare. Weaver gave her a hat branded with his local association of chicken farmers and a note to the president. Lara Trump assured Weaver she would deliver the note, he said.

The Trump campaign, where Lara Trump is an adviser, didn’t answer requests for comment.

Weaver is still waiting to hear back from her, too.

This article was originally published by ProPublica.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom based in New York. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

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Ohio Valley Farmers Unsure About New Trump Trade Aid Payments

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Small farms are squeezed by the dairy crisis. Photo: Nicole Erwin/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday details of a second round of aid totaling $16 billion for farmers affected by the trade war with China. But some Ohio Valley farmers worry about the ongoing consequences of these payments and tariffs.

As with the first round of tariff relief offered last year, farmers will again be paid extra for the soybeans, pork and dairy they produce. But instead of paying farmers a flat rate, USDA officials said these payments will depend on the assessed “trade damage” and the commodity production of each county.

USDA Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey said agency economists first will assess the county-level impact of tariffs. “We then divide that by the acres planted within that county, and then have a [payment] no matter which crops you plant,” he said.

USDA officials say this will more accurately determine the right amount of payments for each farmer. But it also  leaves farmers without specifics about how much they might receive from the payments. Specialty crops including cranberries, grapes and tree nuts were also included to be eligible for relief payments.

The new payments are scheduled to be delivered in three phases, the first in July or August.

West Kentucky soybean farmer Jed Clark said while he appreciates these new payments, he’s worried that payments by county might lead to unintended discrepancies in how much each farmer receives.

“I think it will happen, and I think you’ll probably see some pretty drastic cases of it happening,” Clark said. “It’s hard to cover the diversity of farmers and their practices in a county and throw a blanket over that whole county.”

Clark said because these payments give farmers incentive to grow more, it could potentially increase the already large supply of crops such as soybeans, and that could make depressed crop prices even worse for farmers.

Farmers have been facing financial struggles because of low crop prices, caused in part by  retaliatory tariffs and the overproduction of crops. Most Ohio Valley farmers hope the new payments cover more of their losses than the last round of payments, but more importantly, they hope to see trade deals struck with China and other countries soon.

“Corn farmers only got a penny per bushel [last time], and that certainly didn’t account for the price loss they’ve had,” Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Spokesperson Brad Reynolds said. “I think those safety nets are there, farmers are glad that they’re there, but they’d rather not rely on programs.”

Central Ohio dairy farmer Chuck Moellendick said for the dairy industry, other trade deals in the works with Mexico and Canada are just as important because of the large supply of milk products that await shipping.

“Mexico’s our biggest exporter,” Mollendick said. “All of those things will disappear a lot quicker without tariffs on them. It makes us a lot more competitive.”

Mexico dropped retaliatory tariffs on U.S. cheese and dairy-based whey products last week after the Trump administration dropped tariffs on Mexican steel and aluminum.

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Agriculture

USDA Researchers Seek Help from Union on Trump Restrictions, Relocation

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Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue meets with National Association of Farm Broadcasting members in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) headquarters, Washington, D.C., on May 2, 2017. Moderating the meeting is NAFB President Max Armstrong. Photo: Lance Cheung/USDA

Besides the plan to relocate the Economic Research Service outside Washington, D.C., USDA has also clamped down on the agency’s ability to disseminate its finding through academic journals, a union representative says.

USDA Economic Research Service employees are seeking union representation to help them deal with Trump-administration changes including a restriction on releasing research without clearance from Secretary Sonny Perdue’s office, according to a union representative.

“The agency is trying to restrict how the ERS employees are publishing papers,” said Peter Winch, who works for the American Federation of Government Employees.

“They have to get an OK from USDA before submitting a paper for publication, is the change as it’s been described to me, whereas before they didn’t have to.”

Winch has been working with ERS employees since late last year to explore the possibility of union representation to help address numerous concerns about how the Trump administration is re-organizing science and research at USDA. ERS employees will vote May 9 on a proposal to join AFGE.

“As professional practitioners in a field, the ERS employees would be able to just send the journal articles in their respective field, and if they were published, that was a sign of the worthiness and merit of their work,” Winch said. “Their peers could tear it apart if it wasn’t done correctly. That’s how science works. Now, that’s a change in the research element at USDA, which would put the ERS researchers more directly under the secretary’s office.”

ERS employees are also concerned about USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan to relocate ERS from the Capital region.

ERS conducts research on agricultural economics, rural development, demographics, and a host of other topics. The Daily Yonder frequently uses ERS reports and data.

Former ERS administrator and 29-year employee Katherine Smith Evans shared these concerns in testimony presented to the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee on March 27.

Smith Evans said putting ERS under the supervision of the USDA Chief Economists’ Office instead of its current place within the Research Education and Economics Mission Area of USDA will damage the agency’s scientific credibility.

The change “reduces assurances of the scientific integrity and objectivity of ERS statistics and research, and threatens the accuracy of its critical statistical products,” she said.

In a related move, the Washington Post uncovered a July 2018 memo written by acting USDA chief scientist Chavonda Jacobs-Young mandating that researchers include the following statement in their reports published in scientific journals: “The findings and conclusions in this preliminary publication have not been formally disseminated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy.”

Winch, the union representative, said the ERS reorganization is unlike any other he’s seen at USDA. “This move seems designed to be as disruptive as possible, to be very high-handed, to not be democratic in process,” he said. “That’s a trend, really, throughout the Trump administration.”

He said the relocation is occurring “without appropriate Congressional oversight and input, without regard to the lives and families of employees, without a stated reason.”

At the March 27 meeting of the House ag committee, Representative Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said USDA had failed to provide a cost-benefit analysis to back up its claims that relocating the agency will save money.

“It’s very unlikely that this move will be a cost savings for the government,” Winch said.

USDA is supposed to announce the relocation plan on May 15, two days after the ERS unionization vote.

AFGE has also submitted a petition of interest for USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture employees to form a union. Winch said the NIFA union vote should occur in late May or June. Like ERS employees, many NIFA employees are likely to be relocated outside of Washington, D.C.

NIFA supports research, education, and extension activities through three primary funding mechanisms – competitive grants, formula grants, and non-competitive grants. “We fund and provide leadership for research, education, and extension programs that address national agricultural priorities,” the NIFA website states.

In written statements, Secretary Perdue has said moving NIFA and ERS save money and put the agencies closer to “stakeholders.”

“Relocation will help ensure that USDA is the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and move our resources closer to our customers,” Perdue said, according to a March 12 press release.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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