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Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, and a former North Dakota agriculture commissioner, thinks the Trump Administration should consider emergency economic disaster payments for financially troubled farmers. He spoke April 8 at the North American Agricultural Journalists conference in Washington, D.C. Photo taken April 8, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

NFU's Johnson: Administration needs to consider more payments

WASHINGTON, D.C.—American farmers desperately need another Market Facilitation Payment to offset damages from tariff wars, says Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union.

And maybe more than that.

"I think there needs to be another payment that's made," Johnson said April 8, speaking at the North American Agricultural Journalists in Washington, D.C. Johnson said the U.S. Department of Agriculture "repeatedly" has said they won't make another payment but "you know, those statements are always made until they actually do" make a payment.

Johnson acknowledges that USDA officials have said farmers now know the environment they're dealing with, but he says that's cold comfort. The trade environment has "fundamentally changed," and it's going to be a "long time before this settles down and we get these markets back."

He remembers how the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act was passed on the assumption that high-priced farm commodities would be around for a long time. "And we saw a lot of economic turmoil because those prices didn't stay around. Ultimately, Congress responded with economic disaster payments. I'm not hearing a lot of talk about that right now, but I think over time that talk is going to increase because there's just too much economic pain that's going on out there."

One big difference between now and the 1980s farm credit crisis is that back then, asset values collapsed, Johnson said. "Today, it's the ability to generate income has evaporated for a lot of farmers. They still have asset values so they're simply selling out."

The Trump administration and Congress so far haven't indicated an interest in new payments, but Johnson says one key fact is that the administration "argues they're for the family farmer," and "talks a lot about the fact they owe the election of the president to rural America and farmers in particular."

He says a lot of National Farmers Union members he's talked to had voted for Trump in 2018 but are "a lot less enthused about it today. If the economic turmoil continues to roil, eventually Trump will do something.

"You've got an election coming up," Johnson says. "That may be the big variable where we have a chance to make a difference here, we'll see."

Alan Bjerga, vice president of communications for the National Milk Producers Federation, also speaking at the conference, said the U.S. is losing seven dairy farmers per day, but noted that the 2018 Farm Bill did a better job helping smaller dairy farmers than many people perceive, and that that industry fared better than other industries. Dairy revenues are down 24 percent since 2014, he said.

Johnson said the multi-year farm bill likely won't be reopened, which makes the economic disaster payments more likely.