Farm tensions escalate as USDA staffer is threatened in Midwest

A crop scout enters a soybean fieldduring the Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour in Sheldon, Illinois, on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019.

In a sign of rising tensions with the farm community, the Trump administration withdrew staffers from a privately run tour of Midwestern corn and soybean fields after a government employee received a threat.

While the threat was made by someone not involved in the Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour, the U.S. Department of Agriculture opted to pull its staff as a precaution, Hubert Hamer, administrator of the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, said by email Wednesday. NASS crops chief Lance Honig was scheduled to address groups on the tour, which comprises farmers, reporters and agribusiness interests scouting crop progress.

"Federal Protective Services were contacted and are investigating the incident," Hamer said, without giving detail on the nature of the threat. "The safety of our employees is our top priority."

The USDA's data arm has been the subject of ire in recent months after crop estimates

surprised traders and growers who had expected the agency to significantly reduce its outlook after rain delayed planting. Corn prices plunged last week on planting data that was higher than analyst expectations. The USDA had already been criticized for its June estimates and took the unusual step of re-surveying farmers to get a more accurate number.

The USDA's crop-tour withdrawal comes about two weeks after farmers leveled criticism at Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue at a fair in Minnesota over President Donald Trump's yearlong trade war with China, which has eroded demand and pressured already low prices.

In a statement Wednesday, Farm Journal, the parent company of Pro Farmer, said it took the threat seriously and has also taken precautions to ensure the safety of participants.

"For 27 years the Pro Farmer Crop Tour has been a public service for the benefit of agriculture, in good times and bad," it said. "And it's clearly a stressful time right now."

At nightly crop-tour stops in Indiana, Illinois and Grand Island, Nebraska, farmers questioned officials from both the USDA and Pro Farmer about the government's methodology in determining corn planted area and yields. Some farmers, stung by years of low prices, were frustrated by the rapid rise in prices in May and subsequent steep drop.

USDA officials said yield estimates were based largely on input from farmers as well as satellite imagery. Planted acreage numbers published by the Farm Service Agency earlier this month referred to Aug. 1 data, and that figure has already increased, Chris Hawthorn, an NASS statistician, told farmers on the tour.

"We had a great time with the USDA guys yesterday," said Jim Putnam, a Minnesota farmer who traveled with two USDA staff on the tour Tuesday. "I'm sorry this happened. It makes us all look stupid."

Last month, the Trump administration announced another $16 billion in aid to farmers after a $12 billion tranche in 2018. Earlier this month, Trump hinted that his administration may provide more money for farmers if the trade war were to persist.

Trump's overwhelming support in rural America was crucial to his narrow 2016 election victory, and maintaining farmers' backing is critical to his re-election. This week, the administration has taken criticism from agricultural interests for its handling of the Renewable Fuel Standard, the policy that mandates use of corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel.

On Tuesday, the Iowa Soybean Association sent a letter to Trump and Perdue, asking for a meeting to discuss the Environmental Protection Agency's granting of small refinery exemptions, saying the agency's Aug. 9 announcement that it granted 31 waivers adds to the "economic pain Iowa's farmers and biodiesel producers are experiencing."

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