Scott Yocom is a 48-year-old architect who lives in Manhattan, works at an office building near Times Square, and has been recently consumed with designing a new central terminal at LaGuardia Airport in Queens.
But late last month, Yocom received a government check worth about $3,300, a payment that came courtesy of a Trump administration program aimed at helping farmers hurt by the U.S.-China trade war.
Yocom said he spends two weeks a year on his family farm in Ohio, but as a part-owner he was eligible for the bailout funds.
Yocom was one of at least 1,100 residents of the 50 largest U.S. cities who has received bailout funds from the Agriculture Department, according to USDA data a watchdog group released Monday. Some of the recipients contacted by The Washington Post said they are closely involved with their farm’s daily operations, while others said they could not recall the last time they had visited.
When the Trump administration announced in August that it planned $12 billion in aid to farmers, it said the money was necessary to help them survive a trade war with China. But the program has been controversial from its inception, and the money going to urban residents — some whose living is only loosely connected to farms — underscores the challenge the administration faces in limiting the bailout to its intended targets.
The Environmental Working Group, a critic of the bailout, released information on Monday about 87,704 bailout payments worth a total of $356 million. The transfers were made between September and the end of October.
Collectively, those living in cities have received slightly more than $1 million in these payments. That number could rise; the money disbursed so far represents only a portion of what the administration has said it eventually intends to spend.
USDA officials said there was nothing in the program’s guidelines prohibiting funding from going to those who live in cities. Applicants must show that they are “actively engaged” to receive bailout money — the same standard used by the government in awarding other farm subsidies.
“In order to receive a payment, the producer has to meet the minimum ‘Actively Engaged in Farming’ criteria. Those regulations are used to determine eligibility for all of our other Farm Bill commodity programs,” USDA spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in an email. “The producers also have to maintain ownership over the commodity for which they are receiving a payment. . . . A producer has to prove actual production of a crop to qualify for market facilitation assistance.”
Yocom said he was not pocketing the money but rather reinvesting it in the farm.
“I’m not making my living off of it, so that money is going back into equipment costs and back into the farming operation,” he said in a telephone interview.
Scott Faber, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, said the White House has the ability to unilaterally rewrite the bailout program’s requirements.
Some farm groups have also called for the definition to be changed.
“The bailout itself is benefiting a class of individuals who are not the American family farmer who is paying the price of the trade war,” said Joe Maxwell, owner of a small pig farm in southern Missouri and executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, a farm advocacy organization. “The Trump administration has it in their power to restrict who receives the farmer bailout funds, and they should take immediate action to ensure America’s farmers are the ones who receive these limited funds.”
The White House announced the bailout program in July amid criticism from farmers and farm-state lawmakers over the impact of its trade war with China, which has led to a downturn in exports and agricultural prices.
Trade tensions rose in March, when President Trump slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. China, like many other countries, retaliated with tariffs on U.S. goods, including farm products. And Washington and Beijing have since engaged in several further rounds of tariffs.
The bailout comprises three programs — direct cash payments to farmers to offset losses, about $1.2 billion in federal purchases of farm products to be distributed to food banks and other recipients, and $200 million to promote new export markets for U.S. producers.
The USDA initially declined to release the names of bailout recipients, citing privacy concerns, but it released information to the Environmental Working Group in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Agriculture Department has also begun releasing the names of bailout recipients under the $1.2 billion food purchasing program. One of those names was a Chinese-owned company, Smithfield Foods, that has since canceled its contract amid a political backlash from lawmakers.
Some of the city-dwelling bailout recipients said they have suffered from the trade war and needed federal help, even if they do not live on the farms. Sara A. Kilker, 63, a substitute teacher in Tampa, received about $2,000 from the government for a farm she helps manage in Ohio that produces soybeans and corn. While she does not work the land herself, Kilker said she has been hurt by the downturn in commodities prices while still having to pay for expenses such as fertilizer, seed and herbicide spray.
“I don’t like taking a government handout and haven’t been all my life. I work and still work,” Kilker said. “But the farm has been in my family since the 1830s or 1840s, and I’d like to pass it down to the next generation.”
Dorothy P. McSweeny, who lives in the D.C. neighborhood of Kent, co-owns an 80-acre farm in Minonk, Ill. She said that she wasn’t sure of the last time she visited farmland but that it had probably been at least two years.
“I’m not an absentee owner, because I do manage and make decisions about what the crops are,” McSweeny said. “I am consulted.”
Yocom, the architect in Manhattan, said he hopes one day to leave New York City and follow his father and grandfather’s lead in managing the farm. He lamented that large corporations have taken over family farms and driven small producers out of business.
“It’s a bit of a novelty, but it’s part of an American tradition,” Yocom said. “I like Park Avenue, but I still carry on the family legacy.”