Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Buttigieg ad bemoans farm income drop, but did Mayor Pete hit the mark?

We grade his claim an A

2020 Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg grills Aug. 13 at the Iowa Pork Producers tent at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
2020 Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg grills Aug. 13 at the Iowa Pork Producers tent at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

We pick the latest of a crop of political claims to check for signs of error.

Introduction

“Net farm income has been cut almost in half in the past five years.”

Source of claim

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a Democratic presidential candidate, included this claim in a radio ad entitled “Fabric” that started airing in mid-August on rural radio stations in Iowa.

Analysis

Buttigieg’s minute-long radio ad criticizes President Donald Trump for touting stock market gains while some rural bench marks aren’t so rosy.

Net farm income is the gross farm income (sum of all receipts from the sale of crops, livestock and farm-related goods and services as well as government payments) minus expenses, such as labor and seed purchases.

“Net farm income is a longer-term measure of the ability of the farm to survive as a viable income-earning business,” the Congressional Research Service wrote in a 2005 Report to Congress that included an agricultural glossary of important terms.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture tracks net farm income as a way of monitoring the health of America’s farm economy.

The department’s March forecast, which Buttigieg’s campaign referred to when providing sourcing for his radio ad, said inflation-adjusted net farm income would be $69.4 billion for 2019, 49 percent below its highest point since at least 2000 of $136.1 billion in 2013.

This supports the candidate’s statement that net farm income had been “cut almost in half in the past five years.”

(Because the USDA’s March forecast since has been replaced online with an August forecast, the Fact Checker found the older prediction by pasting the URL of the new release into the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine and selecting a date in April.)

Buttigieg’s ad also echoes testimony from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue at a Feb. 27 hearing before the House Agriculture Committee: “Net farm income has fallen nearly 50 percent from its peak in 2013, as most commodity prices have fallen over the past five years while global stock levels have rebounded with several years of record production.”

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat and committee chair, said that as farm incomes declines and the United States engages in a trade war that hurts soybean and pork sales to China, farm families may need to sell their farms and move into the cities — which hurts rural America.

Even families that stay on the farm must get a larger share of their income from off-farm sources, such as jobs in nearby cities, the American Farm Bureau reported in February 2018.

Buttigieg’s radio ad mentions the dramatic decrease in net farm income since the high of 2013, but doesn’t report there was a slight rebound in 2017 and 2018.

From the low point of $62 billion in 2016, net farm income rose to $75 billion in 2017 and above $80 billion in 2018, according to the USDA’s March forecast.

The ad aired before the USDA released its August prediction of $88 billion net farm income in 2019. If this forecast comes true, net farm income will be down 35 percent from 2013.

Conclusion

Buttigieg’s radio ad criticizes Trump for a “reckless trade war tearing apart rural America.” He says bailouts aren’t making up for losses suffered by farmers. One of those losses is in net farm income, which Buttigieg says is nearly 50 percent lower than its peak in 2013. That is accurate according to the March estimates from the USDA, which were the most recent data available when the ad came out in early August. Trump’s own ag secretary noted the same numbers in February House testimony.

Buttigieg does not mention the farm income rebound in 2017 and the projected rise this year. Still, we don’t think this omission negates the truthfulness of the claim overall. We give his claim about net farm income him an A.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market. Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan of The Gazette.

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