NOEL KING, HOST:
OK. As we just heard, America's farmers are being hurt by the escalating global trade war. President Trump's plan to help them is based on a Depression-era federal program. Esther Honig with Harvest Public Media has the story.
ESTHER HONIG, BYLINE: At a recent rally in Kansas City, President Trump spoke about the tariffs he recently imposed on major U.S. trade partners China, Mexico and Canada.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The farmers will be the biggest beneficiary.
TRUMP: Watch. We're opening up markets. You watch what's going to happen.
HONIG: But, he cautioned...
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TRUMP: Just be a little patient.
HONIG: Right now, farmers aren't doing so hot. The USDA forecasts that farmer income will hit a 12-year low, and now these trade disputes threaten to slash U.S. food exports by billions of dollars. Back in April, Trump went to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to ask how the USDA could help soften the blow to farmers. The result, a $12 billion federal assistance program. By using policy left over from the Great Depression, farmers who have been hit the hardest will receive relief in the form of direct payments. The government will also buy surplus goods from farmers such as fruit, nuts and rice to be distributed at food pantries. And they'll work to find farmers new markets, both foreign and domestic.
AMANDA COUNTRYMAN: It's a big mess. I did say that. You can use that as a quote.
HONIG: That's Amanda Countryman, an agricultural economist at Colorado State University who specializes in international trade and policy. She says this response by the Trump administration is like a game of "Whack A Mole."
COUNTRYMAN: So, yes, it is ironic. We're implementing policy to correct for a response to a policy we implemented in the first place that is protectionist.
HONIG: Basically, Trump slapped import tariffs on goods from China. Then China imposed tariffs on goods from the U.S. And that's damaged foreign demand for U.S. products. Now this federal assistance program offers a potential short-term fix. But, Countryman says, it could cause even more negative consequences for U.S. agriculture.
COUNTRYMAN: Essentially deteriorating or damaging an incredibly important market for the United States, such as China. So when we think about China, it's an incredibly important market for U.S. agriculture.
HONIG: Some Republican and Democratic lawmakers have criticized the program, like Republican and Senate Ag Committee chair Pat Roberts from Kansas, who said farmers would, quote, "much prefer trade rather than aid." This Nebraskan farmer agrees.
ALAN TIEMANN: We'd much rather just have better markets.
HONIG: Alan Tiemann grows soybean and corn and thinks imposing tariffs on goods from China was justified.
TIEMANN: They don't exactly play fair in the market so therefore I'm not opposed to pushing back in semblance.
HONIG: But he's seeing how farmers are struggling, in part due to the consequences of those actions. Now he's not so sure this aid will arrive in time.
TIEMANN: By the time that payment comes around, it's not going to be soon enough to maybe impact some people that really need it right now.
HONIG: That is, some farmers will be forced out of business. And besides that, Tiemann says, getting subsidized by taxpayers casts farmers in a bad light. For NPR News, I'm Esther Honig. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.