By Mike Dorning and Jennifer Jacobs
President Donald Trump announced $13 billion in new aid to farmers at a campaign rally Thursday night in Wisconsin, a critical electoral battleground where he is trailing in recent polls.
Congress had authorized additional borrowing authority for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in coronavirus-relief legislation passed earlier this year, and the second round has been widely anticipated.
“I am doing even more to support Wisconsin farmers,” Trump said during the rally. “Starting next week, my administration is committing an additional -- you have been asking for this for a long time -- $13 billion in relief to help farmers recover from the China virus, including Wisconsin’s incredible dairy, cranberry, and ginseng farmers who got hurt badly.”
Unveiling billions of dollars in new agricultural payments at the rally in Mosinee, in central Wisconsin, might help Trump gain maximum credit for the assistance in a crucial 2020 state where rural voters play a major role. Nine opinion polls taken since Aug. 29 all show Democrat Joe Biden leading in Wisconsin.
Trump carried the state by just 0.8 percentage points four years ago on the strength of overwhelming support from rural residents, who backed him 62% to 35% and accounted for more than a quarter of votes cast, according to exit polls.
Trump didn’t detail the new assistance. People familiar with the matter said the Agriculture Department would explain how the aid is to be distributed on Friday.
“This support is absolutely crucial – but it is just as crucial that it is distributed fairly and equitably,” National Farmers Union president Rob Larew said in a statement.
The president unveiled the first round of as much as $19 billion in coronavirus aid in April, after the authorization from Congress.
That included as much as $16 billion in direct payments to farmers to bolster their incomes, and $3 billion for government purchases of meat, dairy products and other foods. The commodities purchased were distributed through food banks and other nutrition programs serving the poor, school children and the elderly.
“The first round of funding, though greatly appreciated, was not without its flaws,” Larew said. “Not only did it favor large farms over smaller ones, it also sent millions of dollars to foreign-owned operations and excluded some farmers entirely.”
Trump has courted farmers throughout his presidency, regularly celebrating them and boasting of the financial largess he approved for them. He authorized $28 billion over two years in trade aid for farmers. Critics have pointed to damage the agricultural sector has suffered from the trade war with China, which the aid was designed to offset.
Yet there have been signs Trump’s support among farmers is weakening as the coronavirus spread to rural areas, the economy weakened and farm purchases under an interim trade deal this year with China fell short of the president’s promises.
Three-quarters of U.S. farmers say they will vote for Trump in the November election, according to a Farm Futures survey.
Wisconsin, where license plates identify the state as “America’s Dairyland,” lost 1/10 of its dairy farms last year. This year only brought new upheaval. Producers unable to sell dumped milk in the early days of the pandemic, and more families gave up on dairy farming.
The closing of restaurants, school cafeterias and other commercial food service operations during the lockdown and continued reluctance of many Americans to dine out amid the pandemic upended the market for agricultural products, particularly dairy, meat and produce. The food-service industry is a disproportionate buyer of cheese, butter, meat, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Disruptions earlier this year in the meat industry took place as slaughterhouses shut down or slowed because of COVID-19 outbreaks which hurt hog farmers and cattle producers. At the same time, a drop in fuel sales forced ethanol plants to shut down, further depressing corn prices.