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Under Trump, Small Farms Across U.S. — And In NC — Get Smaller Share Of Subsidy Pie

During the Trump administration, the federal government delivered billions of dollars in aid to farmers. But across the country — and in North Carolina — many of those new payments went to the biggest farms, leaving small farms behind.

The latch to the greenhouse door clicks and clacks as Lisa Grele Barrie pushes through it. The whirring sound of industrial size fans fills the air. The smell of nutrient rich soil fills the covered enclosure.

"As you can see, we have one beautiful 50-foot bed," says Barrie. "We're growing lettuce and arugula, got some red Russian kale. Lettuces, French breakfast radishes."

Grele Barrie is the executive director of Raleigh City Farm, the urban farm in Raleigh's Mordecai neighborhood. The farm sits just beyond the right field fence of Peace University's softball field. The farm is tiny, and doesn't sustain itself on sales alone, though the public can buy fresh veggies every Wednesday. It also relies on donations. But sustainability means something entirely different to urban farms, which offer a variety of community benefits like more green space and increased food security.

"What we don't sell, we donate. And so last year, about 15% of what we didn't sell, we would give to our nonprofit partners," says Barrie.

Those nonprofits include food banks, as well as A Place at the Table, Raleigh's first pay-what-you-can café.

Farming is hard work for farms of all sizes. Rights groups often criticize big farms for practices they say harm the environment, exploit workers and are cruel to animals. Maria Williford manages the Raleigh City Farm and hopes the food chain can find ways to better use small farms.

But that's a lot easier said than done.

"It's really hard for small farmers to get into farming," says Williford. "The barriers to entry for farming are tremendous, just even the cost of equipment."

Maria Williford, Raleigh City Farm Manager, sorts veggies at the farm's main stand.
Jason deBruyn
Maria Williford, Raleigh City Farm Manager, sorts veggies at the farm's main stand.

The federal government has for years given subsidies to farms. These subsidies and other federal programs help to stabilize prices during year-to-year crop yield fluctuations, and help support initiatives like the free-and-reduced lunch programs.

Under the Trump Administration, these subsidies ballooned. During trade wars initiated by former president Donald J. Trump, farmers were in danger of losing billions. To offset those potential losses, his administration issued a patchwork of additional subsidies.

But small farms didn't see much cash flow in to their bank accounts, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group, which refers to the additional support as ad-hoc subsidies. In 2019, the richest 1% of farms received almost one-fourth of all subsidy payments, according to the EWG analysis. The top 10th received almost two-thirds.

Anne Schechinger is a senior economics analyst with the Environmental Working Group, who analyzed these payments.

"Because of the ad hoc programs established by the Trump administration, subsidy payments to farmers really ballooned from just over $4 billion in 2017, to more than $20 billion in 2020," Schechinger said.

In North Carolina, the increase was similar, from $55 million to $260 million over that same time span. A five-fold increase in just four years.

"And really the largest and the wealthiest farms received an even larger share of farm subsidies than before because of these Trump Administration programs.," Schechinger said.

The Environmental Working Group advocates that smaller farms should reap more benefits from these taxpayer funded subsidies. For one, larger farms are better able to survive low crop prices and downturns, like those experienced during the pandemic. But because larger farms are getting more of the payments, Schechinger says it makes it harder for small farms to really complete, especially for land.

"So it's a lot easier for the large farms to get even larger, while small farms really don't have the funding to go out and try to get bigger to try to make a larger profit," Schechinger said.

Of course, there are long-standing racial disparities in farming as well. In 1920,Black-run farms were about 14% of the total in the U.S. Today, Black farmers are less than 2% of all farmers. Tucked into the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, is $5 billion dollars specifically targeted to socially disadvantaged farmers.

"The barriers to entry for farming are tremendous, just even the cost of equipment."

To Williford, the Raleigh City Farm manager, any money for small farmers would help. As a micro farm, Raleigh city farm doesn’t get these same subsidies, but Williford and others say they want to help promote all small farms.

"To really have the capital to be able to start an enterprise like this requires a tremendous amount of investment up front," Williford said. "So, any financial support that we could get to get things off the ground and to sustain small farms like this is super critical."

The Environmental Working Group has advocated that the Biden Administration curtail aide especially the ad hoc subsidies established during the trade wars. A department spokeswoman said USDA reviewed Covid-19 assistance programs and " identified a number of gaps and disparities," and that programs going forward would " put a greater emphasis on outreach to small and socially disadvantaged producers."

Jason deBruyn is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Digital News, a position he took in 2024. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016 as a reporter.
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