They go by many names: aid, payments and subsidies, among others. I've even heard them referred to as "entitlements." Whatever you call them, they're federal payouts that end up in the pockets of farmers and ranchers. Whatever you call 'em, they're usually controversial.

They're especially important this year. In large part because of special payments tied to President Donald Trump's trade war and the COVID-19 relief program, federal aid is expected to account for a whopping 36% of all U.S. farm income this year, the highest percentage since 2001, according to a report from the University of Missouri’s Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute.

Think of it this way: Of every dollar that a farmer brings in this year, on average 36 cents comes from the federal government.

Hard-pressed farmers, for their part, shrug and say something like, "Hey, it's been a crazy year. Our normal export markets were messed up by the trade war and the pandemic has really hurt us. We needed the special payments."

For many farmers, the payments have meant the difference between finishing slightly in the black (or breaking even) or sharply in the red. They've meant the difference between going out of business and surviving to fight another day.

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But the 2020 federal payments have drawn criticism from across the political spectrum. Some people on the left complain that, in their view, too much of the money goes to the nation's biggest farmers and too little to operators of small and mid-sized farms. Some folks on the right, arguing from a philosophical viewpoint, say too much taxpayer money is being used.

Who's right? The lefties or the right-wingers? Could both be right? Could both be wrong? There's not nearly enough space, nor am I nearly smart enough, to provide an answer here. But it's something to think about, whether you work in or out of agriculture.

Not sustainable

The criticism of 2020 farm payments, albeit for different reasons, from left and right is nothing new; farm subsidies have been hammered by the left and right for decades, even generations. What really stands out now, at least to me, is the opposition of pragmatic, middle-of-the road folks who say the 2020 payments are just too expensive and can't continue.

From what I've read and heard — including comments from some farm group leaders — these special pandemic and trade war subsidies won't necessarily go away in 2021, but at best will pay out much less much money. Decide for yourself whether a reduction would be good or bad; my point is, it's most likely going to happen, especially since some ag commodity prices are rising.

Regardless of what happens with the trade war and pandemic payments, other federal subsidies will remain in place in 2021. These include helping to keep federal crop insurance affordable to farmers and so-called safety net programs written into the 2918 farm bill. The safety net programs and federal crop insurance have been criticized in the past — from left and right — and those criticisms will continue. Farmers who support them will need to continue fighting for them.

To all the farmers and ranchers who received trade war and pandemic payments this year: I'm most certainly not criticizing you. In your shoes, I'd surely have taken the money, too. (Just like I took my $1,200 stimulus check.)

I hope the federal payments — by whatever name you call choose to call it — will help you to survive this difficult year. I hope it will allow you to continue fighting the good fight.