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Specialty Farmers: Bailouts Help Rich Get Richer

Jeff Hake
Eric Stock
Jeff Hake helps operate a farm in rural McLean that generally sells direct to consumers.

This is the last in a four-part series about how the USDA’s trade relief payments are playing out in Central Illinois. It was produced by WGLT and WCBU.
Jeff Hake and his immediate family run Funks Grove Heritage Fruits and Grains, a nine-acre farm in rural McLean. McLean County has secured the largest payouts through the Market Facilitation Program of any county in the country, but Hake's farm won't see any of that money.

As a family farm that sells most of its products directly to consumers—things like black raspberries and Johnny cake mixes—Hake is not exactly on the front lines of the trade war, but he sees the bailouts as a symptom of a greater problem.

“It’s just throwing money at the problem and hoping that things will work out later,” Hake said.

Hake said the federal government does have programs all farmers could find beneficial, such as crop insurance, but they are cumbersome.

Hake is a leader in the National Young Farmers Coalition. It ran a survey showing the No. 1 reason farmers don't apply for USDA programs is they are too much work. Hake added there's a good chance you won't get the help you need.

“These USDA programs are themselves underfunded and the people who are trying to manage them are underfunded, so you go in and try to apply for something, they might want to assist you, they might be trying really hard to help you, but it’s one person or a handful of people that are trying to help farmers and it’s just not enough,” Hake said.

Hake noted for farms like his, risk management means don't quit your day job.

“We are not throwing our whole lives into this,” Hake explained. “We’ve seen it happen where people go in too hard and it hurts.”

Many specialty farmers in Central Illinois feel the so-called trade war bailout is another example of how the federal government protects industrial farmers while shortchanging the "little guy."

Ken Myszka at Epiphany Farms
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
Ken Myszka said his restaurants, including Epiphany Farms, are providing a safety net amid uncertainty caused by the U.S. trade war and other economic factors.

Ken Myszka farms about 10 acres in rural Bloomington but is transitioning to a larger farm in rural Downs. He has four restaurants he said are his financial safety net in what has become a shaky market.

He said he's concerned the impact ongoing trade unrest could have on an area so dependent on agriculture.

“On the restaurant side it scares me,” Myszka said. “We are in a really, really fragile market right now and it’s nerve-wracking.”

Myszka is also one the Young Leader board members of the Illinois Specialty Crop Growers Association. He said he understands the need for conventional agriculture to feed the masses, but relief often comes at the expense of farmers like him who feed consumers directly.

“Those people that are making those decisions need to do their due diligence to make sure they are equally distributing it and it’s actually benefitting our society, that’s really important,” Myszka said. “It’s not just feeding the richest pockets, it had to feed the poor and feed the common person.”

Liz Stelk, president of the Illinois Stewardship Appliance, said she feels aid payments to larger farms were a correction to the Farm Bill Congress passed last year. She said doubling the cap to $250,000 per farmer is wrong, especially when it's going in some cases to family members and others who might have little to do with the farm operation.

“This is all legal and above board, but it feels like corruption,” Stelk said. “It’s not what I think Americans wanted to see happen when we saw that farmers are struggling.”

Stelk worries bigger payments that help the rich get richer will lead to more farm consolidation. She feels that money could be better spent on conservation programs.

As much as smaller farmers say the federal government should do more to support good stewardship of the land, Myzska said he is also driven by a rugged individualism that says the farm must be self-sustaining to fulfill its mission.

“In our story and in our history there’s a ton of these handouts, there’s a ton of these grants, there’s a ton of investments, then it kind of just proves that this (can't) exist in a free market,” Myszka said.

Stelk also said as aid payments for the bigger operations continue, smaller farmers will need to diversify what they grow because what they are doing now isn't working.

U.S. Rep. Darin Lahood, R-Peoria, said he planned to raise family farmers' concerns during a private visit with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.