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Reports: USDA off tour of crops after call from angry Iowa farmer

Farm tensions escalate as crop tour fields threat

A crop scout enters a soybean field Tuesday in Sheldon, Ill., during the Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)
A crop scout enters a soybean field Tuesday in Sheldon, Ill., during the Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

In a sign of rising tensions in farm country, the Trump administration withdrew staffers from a privately run tour of Midwestern corn and soybean fields after organizers received a threat.

While the threat was made by someone not involved in the annual Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour, the U.S. Department of Agriculture opted to pull its staff from the events as a precaution, Hubert Hamer, administrator of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, said by email Wednesday.

Lance Honig, the service’s crops chief, was scheduled to address groups on the tour before he was pulled. More than 100 scouts, industry experts and journalists are on the tour covering about 2,000 fields across Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota.

Reuters, citing three unnamed sources, reported that the threat came from an angry farmer over the phone. The Pro Farmer organization wrote on its website the threat “came from a person in Iowa who was not affiliated with the event” and said it was not made against Honig, though he was yanked from the lineup.

“Federal Protective Services were contacted and are investigating the incident,” said Hamer, who would not give details about the nature of the threat. “The safety of our employees is our top priority.”

The USDA’s data arm for which Honig works has been the subject of ire in recent months after its rosy crop estimates surprised traders and growers who had expected the agency to significantly reduce its outlook after floods and rains delayed planting.

Huge tracts of western Iowa and eastern Nebraska were inundated after a March “bomb cyclone” storm overpowered levees along the Missouri River.

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Corn prices plunged last week on planting data that was more robust than analyst expectations. The USDA already had been criticized for its June estimates being too high, and took the unusual step of resurveying farmers to get a more accurate number.

The USDA’s 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 also took 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, farmers have 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 that the rapid rise in prices in May was subsequently followed by a 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, a USDA statistician, told farmers on the tour.

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

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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 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 reelection.

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.”

Democratic U.S. Reps. Dave Loebsack and Abby Finkenauer of Eastern Iowa called on the Government Accountability Office to investigate.

And on Wednesday, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig — both Republicans — wrote to the EPA of their “profound disappointment” over the waivers.

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