CHICAGO - Iowa corn farmer Bob Hemesath jokes that the government check he expects as compensation for his trade-war losses will soon allow him to splurge on upscale coffee in town instead of his usual burnt gas-station brew.
Rob Sharkey, an Illinois farmer, hopes his corn trade aid check will be big enough for that margarita machine he and his wife have been eyeing – but they doubt they'll be any left over for the booze.
Federal economists have calculated that the nation’s losses in corn - its largest crop by harvest and export volume - amount to just a penny per bushel, a pittance farmers call absurd. That's in stark contrast to the substantial $1.65 per bushel the government will pay for lost sales of soybeans, the crop hardest hit by retaliatory Chinese tariffs in a trade war launched by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Both subsidies only cover half the bushels harvested this fall, though the government could soon decide to apply more aid money to this season.
"You have to wonder why Washington even bothered" with the corn subsidy, said Sharkey, 43, a fifth-generation farmer. "The soybean payment? That's real money that can help us."
Even Sonny Perdue, Trump’s agriculture chief, fails to understand the pennies in trade aid. The U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary - a former farmer himself - recently told corn growers gathered in Champaign, Illinois, that the measly offering left him baffled and asking his agency's economists how they figured the number.
"We have got $1.65 on beans and a penny on corn? That doesn't make any sense'," he said. "If I were picking numbers, I'd have picked a different one."
But Perdue said the department was obligated to stick with the economists' algorithm because it mirrors what the U.S. would present to the World Trade Organization when filing an unfair-trade grievance.
The USDA in August outlined how it would spend the first $6.1 billion of an authorized $12 billion aid package for farmers caught up in the trade war, including cash payments for farmers of grains, oilseeds, cotton, dairy and hogs.
The National Corn Growers Association has urged Perdue to change how the government calculates the economic bite of lost exports in its next tranche of trade aid, expected in December.
Some farmers cracked that they wouldn't stoop to pick up pennies off the ground, much less request them through bureaucratic forms.
"A penny is laughable," said Aron Carlson, a corn farmer and president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association.
USDA officials did not answer Reuters’ questions about how many farmers have applied so far for the corn trade aid. But government data gathered by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based lobby group, from public records requests shows the United States had paid farmers $1.9 million for 12,807 corn claims as of Oct. 31.