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Farmer’s threat prompts USDA to pull staff from crop tour

Henry County/Chicago | Reuters — The U.S. Agriculture Department said on Wednesday it had pulled all staff from an annual crop tour after an employee was threatened, and three sources said the threat came over the phone from an angry farmer.

Farmers have complained this month that a government crop report did not reflect damage from historic flooding this spring. They are also frustrated over unsold crops due to the trade war with China, falling farm income and tighter credit conditions.

Lance Honig, crops chief at USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, and other USDA staffers left the privately-run Pro Farmer tour and police will be present on upcoming stops of the trip, which ends on Thursday, three sources with knowledge of the situation said.

“A USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service employee received a threat while on the ProFarmer Crop Tour from someone not involved with the tour,” Hubert Hamer, administrator of the statistics service, said in a statement. “As a precaution, we immediately pulled all our staff out of the event.”

The Federal Protective Service was contacted and is investigating the incident, USDA said.

USDA declined to give details on the threat, but tour organizers said in a statement that it was taken “very seriously.”

“(We) have taken all steps possible to ensure the safety of everyone involved in the tour,” said Andy Weber, CEO of Farm Journal, the parent company of tour organizer Pro Farmer.

“It’s clearly a stressful time right now.”

Honig could not be reached for comment. Mark Warburton, the police chief in Spencer, Iowa, declined to say whether police would be at a tour meeting scheduled to take place in the city on Wednesday night.

Honig had been scheduled to attend a meeting later on Wednesday and speak at the tour’s final event in Rochester, Minnesota, on Thursday to answer questions about the government’s crop forecast, according to tour organizers.

Falling farm incomes

Farmers at stops throughout the eastern and western legs of the normally tranquil crop tour have expressed frustration with USDA — though less so with President Donald Trump, who they largely continue to support.

Corn future prices posted their biggest drop in three years after USDA estimated a bigger-than-expected crop on Aug. 12. Farmers have complained the forecast did not adequately take into account a stormy spring and severe flooding.

Farmers have also been suffering from low commodity prices for years, and Washington’s trade war with Beijing has taken China, the top buyer of U.S. soybeans, out of the market. Floods and the trade war have contributed to falling farm incomes and tighter credit conditions as farmers struggle to repay loans.

The Trump administration has also been scrambling to stem the tide of rising anger in Farm Belt states after its decision this month to allow numerous oil refiners to mix less corn-based ethanol into their gasoline.

A Nebraska City police car was seen at a Pro Farmer event at Arbor Day Farm on Tuesday, according to a Reuters witness. Nebraska City Police Captain Lonnie Neeman said security was requested after an event at a previous stop in Grand Island, Nebraska, “got heated.”

“Somebody called and said they were concerned there may be issues last night so we just walked through on occasion,” Neeman said. “I don’t know any particulars as to what kind of threats were made or to who.”

Farmers at that event were demanding details on the Pro Farmer tour’s methodology, attendees at the event told Reuters.

Reporting for Reuters by P.J. Huffstutter and Tom Polansek; additional reporting by Karen Braun in Nebraska City and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; writing by Caroline Stauffer.

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