Farmers, Fairness & the Farm Bill

where issues of producers, policy and equity converge

A Collaborative Research Project with Rural Coalition, National Family Farm Coalition & American University's School of International Service (Washington, DC)

The Farm Bill

The United States ‘Farm Bill’ gets re-debated, re-written, and re-authorized by Congress every 5-8 years. This omnibus legislation dictates the direction of nearly US$1trillion (~2% of national budget) worth of federal supports and services for commodity crop and specialty food production, nutrition assistance, soil conservation and sustainability, livestock and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), grain reserves (or their dismantling), agricultural research, crop insurance, farmers markets, food aid, biofuels, forestry, and agricultural trade (including WTO compliance—or lack thereof) among many other topics. This massive policy directly impacts growers and eaters throughout the US and indirectly impacts growers and eaters throughout the world through, for instance, exports of cheap grain. Though enormous, there are many foundational elements of agricultural governance that are not in the Farm Bill—from supply management to labor protection to agrobiodiversity conservation to anti-trust regulation. Relatively off the mainstream radar for many generations, the Farm Bill is finally beginning to generate public interest and political engagement, and has become a site of intense conversation and contestation on the optimal role of the US government in agri-food systems.

History and Purpose of the Farm Bill

At its creation in 1933, the Farm Bill has had three main purposes: to guarantee farmers received fair and viable prices, to provide sufficient “food and fiber” supplies for the American people, and to conserve soil fertility in the wake of vast Dust Bowl topsoil erosion. Multiple versions of the Farm Bill have been passed since, emphasizing a wide variety of topics that influenced sectors well beyond the farm gate. Today the Bill is increasingly export-driven and enables multinational agro-industry consolidation and concentration. The Farm Bill’s history has been immensely complex, but here are a few key highlights:

In 1933, the Farm Bill was created as part of the New Deal, an ambitious attempt to uplift millions of Americans from the difficulties of the Dust Bowl era and Great Depression. Congress and President Roosevelt introduced a tax on food processors to help stabilize the rural economy and alleviate the hardships felt by farmers receiving low prices on crops being produced in excess. By 1938, the Farm Bill became a formalized bill, undergoing additional debates, revisions by Congress and continual renewal every five to eight years—with permanent laws included in the 1949 Bill.

Subsequent bills attached to the Farm Bills of the 1930s and 1940s aimed to invest in the long-term stability of the US food supply and land stewardship. Unfortunately, policies underwent changes that favored large and powerful corporations at the expense of public benefits.

The 1970s was marked by USDA Secretaries of Agriculture ushering in an era of “get big or get out.” This period was characterized by an industrialization of agriculture, the expansion of monocultures, transformation of animal farming and increased production of grain, exported to USSR. By the early 1980s, global overproduction collapsed grain prices, sending US agriculture spiraling into debt, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and rural crisis.

In the name of free-market austerity, the 1996 ‘Freedom to Farm’ Bill ceased the last bit of supply management, leading to further price falls and ironically to extensive (and expensive) emergency payments, which then became permanent in the 2002 Farm Bill. Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization’s 1995 Agreement on Agriculture reduced barriers to trade between countries, while US Farm Bill programs promoted the overproduction of wheat, soybeans, rice, corn, and by extension from cheap feed: industrial dairy and meat products. The world market was glutted by an overproduction of commodity crops, which undermined global prices and undercut competing farmers in other countries.

The Current Farm Bill

Today’s Farm Bill, the Agriculture Act of 2014, has been built upon the successive historical bills and modified to provide updated federal services and programs that impact all American citizens and many countries around the world. Like its predecessors, the 2014 Farm Bill spans a wide range of areas including nutrition, crop insurance, commodities and conservation. This bill aims at expanding markets for agricultural products both in the US and abroad, strengthening conservation programs and creating opportunities for local and regional food systems.

Each new version of the Farm Bill presents challenges and opportunities to create a healthier, more equitable food system. The passing of this unified package of food and farm programs promotes the continual refinement of critical programs that uplift the most chronically underserved segments of agriculture and US rural and urban communities. Other notable achievements of the 2014 Farm Bill include the provision of funds for programs that regulate crop insurance, food labeling standards and resilient local and regional food systems.

The greatest concerns about the 2014 Farm Bill stem in large part by what is not even included: a fair price floor—an agricultural living wage—for growers and any protection for farmworker labor conditions. Other concerns include reductions in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) and conservation funding, and an overall imbalance in how funds and protections are allocated. The major beneficiaries are large producers, processors and distributors of agricultural foodstuffs. In contrast, diverse producers, small family farms, the hungry and community food systems remain underrepresented and under-supported. Due to the tense political climate there are a number of areas that were not properly addressed and need future improvement. The need for emergency and other nutrition programs are often insufficiently funded, while price, risk and disaster protection for diversified farms remain woefully inadequate. Meanwhile, overproduction of commodity crops grows, unabated, along with subsequent low and volatile prices.

Community partnered action research on and for U.S. agricultural policy