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Only on AP: Big farms find easy ways around caps on tariff aid

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An AP Best of States mention in February about the hundreds of companies avoiding President Donald Trump’s steel tariffs got Upper Midwest news editor Doug Glass thinking about Trump’s $12 billion aid package to farmers hurt by the tariffs. What happened next shows just how easy it can be for states to produce sharp, data-driven journalism – simply by calling on the data team for help.

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Mike Starkey offloads soybeans from his combine as he harvests his crops in Brownsburg, Ind., Sept. 21, 2018. – AP Photo / Michael Conroy

Glass asked Washington-based data editor Meghan Hoyer if she saw potential in getting farmer payment data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA),and with Hoyer quickly aboard,the pair worked with a staffer to draft and file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

When the agency returned the material 10 weeks later,Balint Szalai,a Hungarian investigative reporter who was embedded on AP’s data team as part of his Humphrey Fellowship, analyzed the data to determine where and to whom the most money was flowing.

Among the findings: Many big farming operations were legally collecting far more than the supposed caps on aid.

Minneapolis reporter Steve Karnowski,stepping into the story,spoke to longtime USDA critics who called it the latest evidence that the agency should change the rules for its programs. He also interviewed farmers who defended taking the big checks, saying they didn’t even cover their losses under Trump’s trade war.

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Farmer Matthew Keller walks through one of his pig barns near Kenyon, Minn., June 25, 2019. Keller, who also grows crops to feed his livestock, said he “definitely appreciated” the $143,820 he collected in federal aid to farmers struggling under tariffs. It didn’t cover all his losses but it helped with his cash flow, he said. He reached the $125,000 cap on his hogs, and the remaining money was for his soybeans and corn. – AP Photo / Jeff Baenen

Meanwhile,Szalai was troubleshooting the original data with USDA officials and filing a second FOIA to get data through the end of the funding period. The analysis,completed by Washington data team intern Riin Aljas,and the payment data were shared with AP members,giving them a week of lead time to localize the material for their own audiences. Video journalists Dylan Lovan,Louisville,and Jeff Baenen,Minneapolis,contributed visuals and Washington multimedia journalist Kevin Vineys worked up a graphic. Along with the data sets,AP’s main and abridged text offerings,along with photos and the graphic all moved in advance for member planning. Coordination among the video journalists in Kentucky and Minnesota,and an on-camera expert interview in Washington were packaged by the Central Region for broadcast, online and social release.

The Only-on-AP story ran on dozens of sites,including The New York Times,The Washington Post,Chicago Tribune,Los Angeles Times and NBC. It was a top-tweeted story of the day,and a Central tweet that went out later,accompanied by a social video,drew more than 19,000 views of the video. Localized stories ran on dozens more sites.

For sophisticated data analysis and on-the-ground reporting that shed light on a key consequences of trade policy,Karnowski, Szalai and Aljas share this week’s Best of the States award.

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