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What struggling U.S. farmers want even more than federal aid

American farmers have been among the hardest hit by the U.S. trade war with China. With no deal between the world’s two largest economies in sight, the Trump administration unveiled a second emergency aid plan Thursday to help offset agricultural losses. William Brangham talks to Iowa Public Television's Delaney Howell about farmers' support for President Trump and what they want more than aid.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Farmers have been among the Americans hardest hit by the United States' trade war with China.

    As William Brangham reports, with no end in sight, the Trump administration today unveiled a second emergency aid plan to offset agriculture losses.

  • William Brangham:

    The Trump administration will spend $16 billion to help farmers impacted by Chinese tariffs in this ongoing trade war, topping last year's aid package.

    Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue says farmers can expect direct payments starting this summer.

    For more on this, and the larger problems facing farmers, I'm joined by Delaney Howell. She's host of Iowa Public Television's agriculture program, "Market to Market."

    Delaney, thank you very much for being here.

    The president announced this big $16 billion package today, and this seems to just be an acknowledgment that this ongoing trade fight with China has hurt some farmers, and now the president wants to try to help them out.

  • Delaney Howell:

    Absolutely, William. You have got it spot on there.

    I mean, the president has said from the beginning he's apologized to the farm community, and I think you see that reiterated again today with the announcement of today's assistance package.

  • William Brangham:

    And what is your sense from — I know you have been talking to farmers throughout this process. How do they react when these — this is now the second big package the president has offered. What's their reaction to this?

  • Delaney Howell:

    The sentiment in regards to the assistance package, in particular, is they would prefer trade.

    The analogy used or the sentence used is, trade, not aid. They want to be able to trade with these countries, China, Mexico, Canada. They would prefer trade. But they are thankful, I think, at the end of the day that the president at least recognizes and is offering some sort of olive branch to the farming community.

  • William Brangham:

    And is there a sense that — I mean, they obviously have been hurt very directly by these tariffs? Is there a sense amongst the farming community that this aid is enough, that this will help them get through?

  • Delaney Howell:

    That's to be seen. We have seen over the last year, over 2018, a lot of producers going out of business, especially in the dairy community up there in Wisconsin, New York, some of those areas. Those folks have been hit very hard.

    And I know that, across the Midwest as well, the rug has been pulled out from many, many farmers. So I think it's to be seen really how much of an impact this assistance package will help rural America, because there are still so many details that are kind of left in the unknown at this point, William.

  • William Brangham:

    The president seems to be indicating — and he said as much today — that this fight with China is going to be a short-lived fight and, in the end, it will be worth the fight.

    Do farmers share that sense of optimism that, in the end, that this was the right fight to fight?

  • Delaney Howell:

    I think, at this point, farmers still very largely feel that President Trump has their best interests at heart.

    However, I would counter that this latest round of aid package, to me, indicates that this is not a short fight to fight. This is an indication that perhaps we're going to see this trade war or trade battle with China drawn out for another couple of months, maybe even another year or so.

    And I think that that's why, part and parcel, the administration is now announcing this latest assistance package. I mean, Secretary Perdue said it himself. President Trump wants to help farmers, but because of the latest trade skirmish, and we were thought we were close to a deal, now we're not close to a deal, we have got to put this assistance package together.

    And I think it was a rushed decision, and a rushed — rushed thing really released finally this week.

  • William Brangham:

    And, of course, on top of these ongoing trade fights, there's, of course, been these terrible storms and the floods and the sort of disasters that the farming community has had to endure.

    We did see the announcement — at least, it seems that there's going to be a disaster aid package coming.

    But for people who are not tuned in to the farming community in the U.S., what has this last year been like for them?

  • Delaney Howell:

    This last year has been very hard on the farm community.

    And I know there's probably a lot of East and West Coast folks watching this program tonight. The folks in the Midwest are struggling. The agricultural economy is usually the last one to have an influx in funds, in the commodity markets, et cetera.

    We're kind of the last ones to feel the success that the general economy feels. So, while you see that the economy as a whole has been surging, jobs are surging, we're at a very low unemployment rate, I believe the lowest one in almost 50 years, agriculture is not having the same success.

    We have had trade skirmishes that have directly impacted many producers over the last — over the last year, really. And now, when you add in the latest weather issues, we are feeling those effects.

  • William Brangham:

    And I know, lastly, there was some concern that some of this aid — some of this aid package might in fact steer farmers to planting crops that they wouldn't have otherwise planted.

    Can you explain that dynamic?

  • Delaney Howell:

    Absolutely.

    So we're coming up here on what's known as the final insurance plant date. So there are essentially two dates that are very important to farmers, and it varies by state and commodity. Corn has a different set of dates than soybeans and wheat.

    But, essentially, once a producer hits that final deadline, for example, here in Iowa, the corn final plant deadline is May 31. So, as we near that deadline, farmers may have to consider other options, as in switching some of those acres they originally intended to plant as corn acres now to soybean acres.

    So it's been coupled with today's announcement that the assistance package is one payment rate per county, regardless of the commodity. So, as producers are figuring out those balance sheets and figuring out what commodities they're going to plant, they're pushed now by weather, as those final crop insurance dates are quickly approaching.

    And I will add that, William, this new assistance package that was released today, folks, if you do not plant acres, if those acres do not get planted, they will not be eligible for the assistance package that President Trump and the USDA announced today.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Delaney Howell of Iowa Public Television, thank you so much.

  • Delaney Howell:

    Thank you.

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