Tens of thousands of American farmers were forced to wait for Trump's tariff aid during the government shutdown

  • More than 37,200 American farmers applied for tariff aid during the government shutdown, according to data obtained by Business Insider through a public records request.
  • None of those were approved while local branches of the Department of Agriculture were closed.
  • That kept some farmers waiting weeks on end for support payments.

As President Donald Trump sparred with lawmakers over border security in December and January, tens of thousands of American farmers were forced to wait weeks longer than usual for tariff aid and had no confirmation of whether they would receive it at all.

Farmers this winter signed up in droves for support payments the Trump administration promised last year to help offset losses from the president's trade policies. But access to the $12 billion bailout program was severely limited during the recent partial government shutdown, which was the longest in history.

At least 37,213 applications for the Market Facilitation Program piled up after the Department of Agriculture was shuttered along with eight other cabinet-level agencies in December, according to data obtained by Business Insider through a public records request. The latest available data runs from December 22 to January 16, so it does not include the last week and a half of the shutdown.

None of those applications were approved until after local Farm Service Agency offices, which process and distribute support payments, began to reopen the following month.

While those who were already enrolled in the Market Facilitation Program could receive checks during the shutdown, a late harvest left many farmers unable to apply until the end of the year.

Dave Walton was one of them, turning in his paperwork in late December. The soybean and corn grower from Iowa had expected to receive a check within about a week, the typical turnaround time for applications there, but instead ended up waiting a month and a half because of the closures.

"It was money we were counting on," Walton said. "When that didn't happen, it had an effect on not only the holiday time, but we had some crop inputs that we would have liked to prepay during that period."

About 4,000 Iowans had to wait extra time for tariff aid, according to the data from the first month of the shutdown, second only to 5,000 in Illinois.

Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Minnesota, Ohio and Texas each saw more than 2,000 Market Facilitation Program applications pile up.

A series of other crucial USDA programs were also hindered during the shutdown, adding to administrative burdens at a time when farmers were already reeling from low commodity prices and harsh weather.

Even before the disruption, the Market Facilitation Program had some local FSA offices swamped. An average of nearly 21,000 applications have been submitted across the country each week since it began, according to USDA Farm Programs.

"We also have to remember that counties get slammed with work loads," said Brad Murray, a program director at the Iowa Farm Service Agency. “It's not that they just have 10 of these things to approve a day. They may have 500 come in a three-day period, and those just don't get processed as quickly."

It took one county office in southwestern Ohio at least a month after reopening to get caught up on Market Facilitation Program applications, according to an official there who spoke on the condition of anonymity because FSA service center employees were not authorized to discuss the matter. 

"We had people knocking our door down when we got back," the official said. "It was just a really crazy time."

Behind on countless administrative duties, including the review of nearly a hundred applications, the county staffers played a guilty game of catch up when they returned. More than 2,100 applications had stacked up across Ohio, where soybeans and corn are major crops. 

"Most everybody that we talked to we were concerned about, you know? Farmers need that money," the employee said. "I just felt kind of overwhelmed when we got back because I wanted to get those people paid quickly since I knew they'd been waiting for so long."

With Washington mired in gridlock for 35 days, the USDA sought to soften the blow dealt to farmers. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue extended the deadline to sign up for tariff aid in January and sent some staff back to perform limited duties at a number of offices.

The government also paid interest to farmers whose Market Facilitation Program applications were delayed for more than 30 days, according to officials at the local FSA offices. The White House referred comment requests to the USDA, which did not respond to multiple calls and emails.

Pain from trade tensions has grown increasingly evident across the Farm Belt, testing the loyalty of a key constituency for Trump as he campaigns for re-election in 2020. American agricultural exports are expected to fall by nearly $2 billion in 2019, largely because of trade tensions. 

"The combination of needing relief from tariffs and then having that relief delayed because of other policy decisions made by the administration could very well have a potent interaction effect," said Gregory Wawro, a political scientist at Columbia University. "But if those who are hurt by the tariffs eventually get their relief, they may not hold the delay against Trump in the longer run."

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