A large farming operation based in Charleston, Missouri, collected more than $2.78 million from the Trump administration’s farm bailout program, making it the biggest beneficiary of the federal payments nationwide.
The payments, made between September 2018 and April of this year, were part of a $12 billion aid package to provide a financial safety net for farmers hurt by the ongoing trade war with China.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data analyzed by the not-for-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), which was obtained by the Southeast Missourian, three DeLine farm operations with the same Charleston mailing address each received nearly $1 million in payments.
DeLine Farms Partnership received $987,768; DeLine Farms North, $975,625; and DeLine Farms South, $819,370, the data show.
More than $900,000 went to five other farm businesses, in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee and two in Texas, according to The Associated Press.
Three other farming operations collected more than $800,000, according to information obtained by AP.
Most of the federal aid has gone to soybean farmers, who have suffered the most under China’s retaliatory tariffs, according to the news service.
The three DeLine Farms entities, for example, received $2.36 million in bailout money for their soybean crop, according to USDA data provided by Washington, D.C.-based EWG.
DeLine Farms and other high-payment farms received the benefits despite a $125,000 payment cap per individual in three different agricultural categories.
Under the Market Facilitation Program, payments are capped at $125,000 per eligible farmer who grows corn, cotton sorghum, soybeans and/or wheat.
The same cap applies to farmers in the dairy and hog business. A third $125,000 cap applies to farmers who produce sweet cherries and shelled almonds, which are specialty crops, according to a spokesperson for the USDA, who spoke only on background and refused to be named.
EWG senior economic analyst Anne Weir Schechinger said, “The way these farms get around that limit is just that they have multiple different partners in the farm. ... You can have an unlimited number of partners,” she said.
“You just have to be actively engaged in farming,” Schechinger said. But that doesn’t mean the person has to be working on the farm, she added.
“Most people think the money is going to people who are actually farming, and it is not,” she said. “It is going to people living in cities who are only peripherally related to farming.”
Technically, each member of the family or partnership has to be “actively engaged in farming,” but this requirement can be met through a phone conversation about what to plant and when to sell the crop, according to EWG spokeswoman Sarah Graddy.
The Southeast Missourian made several attempts to contact Donny DeLine and DeLine Farms for comment, but without success.
The newspaper made seven calls over a period of several days and at various times to a Charleston phone number listed on the DeLine Farms Partnership Facebook page. The newspaper also sent two Facebook messages to DeLine Farms. None of the Facebook messages or the voicemails left on the DeLine Farms answering machine were returned.
An attorney for the DeLine family, Robert Serio of Clarendon, Arkansas, told AP the three DeLine partnerships qualified legally for the payments and could have qualified for even larger payments were it 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” in farming requirement.
In an email to the Southeast Missourian, the USDA spokesperson offered an example of how a farm could receive more than $125,000.
If a general partnership has five members and each member is determined to be actively engaged in farming in all three cap categories, then each partner could receive $375,000, the USDA staff member wrote.
“Therefore, with five members it is possible that the general partnership could receive up to, but not more than $1,875,000,” the spokesperson wrote.
“A large amount of assistance like this is likely to be audited by the department to ensure the recipients have met the necessary eligibility criteria,” the spokesperson wrote in the email.
“We have no reason to believe that the payments (to DeLine Farms) were not made in accordance with our policies, regulations and other actively engaged criteria to qualify for multiple payments across a single ‘entity,’” he wrote.
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has championed subsidy limits, told The Associated Press the bailout program is 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.
In a statement to AP, Grassley claimed some of the nation’s largest farms are receiving huge subsidies “through underhanded legal tricks.”
Grassley said, “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 senator added, “The Department of Agriculture needs to re-evaluate its rules for awarding federal funds and conduct more oversight of where it’s funneling taxpayer dollars.”
EWG’s Schechinger said, “Wealthier farmers benefit most. It is all based on how much of a crop you produce, and that is based on your acreage. So generally your larger farms are going to get most of the money.”
She added “about 10 percent of farms in last year’s bailout got over half of the payments.”
A small farmer, on the other hand, will receive little benefit from the bailout, she said.
“That is kind of our main issue with the program, is that the money is going to these mega farms who really don’t need taxpayer-funded subsidies,” Schechinger said.
“The little guys are the ones really struggling with the farm economy and the (retaliatory) tariffs, and they are not the ones getting most of the money,” she said.
But bailout recipients who spoke to AP defended the payments. They argued the federal money didn’t cover their losses from the trade war and they were legally entitled to the payments.
USDA rules allow farms to file claims for multiple family members or other partners.
DeLine entities farm 35,000 acres in five states — Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi — according to Farm Progress, an online publication.
U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, Missouri, represents the 8th Congressional District of Southeast Missouri, which includes Charleston, where the DeLine farming operations are based.
The congressman praised DeLine Farms on Facebook after visiting with farmer Donny DeLine in July 2016.
“DeLine Farms is a great example of the incredible efficiency of today’s farmers,” he wrote.
Smith, a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, was not available to comment on the bailout issue, according to Mark Roman, an aide to the congressman.
“Honestly, beyond the privacy concerns, it’s probably not appropriate for us to comment on how individuals he represents utilize federal programs without speaking with them first and understanding all factors,” Roman wrote in an email to the Southeast Missourian on Tuesday.
During a farm tour in 2018, Smith said he supported Trump’s decision to provide $12 billion in emergency relief to farmers affected by the trade dispute and rising tariffs imposed by other countries in retaliation for tariffs levied by Trump.
“I am very supportive of our president,” he said during a visit to the Jackson Egg Co. farm in Cape Girardeau County. “I have trust that he knows what he is doing.”
President Trump has authorized the USDA to provide another $16 billion in bailout aid on top of the previous $12 billion package.
Combined, the two aid packages mean “we are going to spend $28 billion of taxpayer money on these farm bailouts,” EWG’s Schechinger said.
“We just want everybody to know that most of this money is not going to the small farm that is struggling. It is going to these huge farms,” she said.
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BAILOUT BY THE NUMBERS
DeLine Farms Partnership
DeLine Farms North
DeLine Farms South
(Payments for all three Charleston, Mo.-based farming operations were for soybeans, corn, cotton and wheat)
*Source: Environmental Working Group analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data