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Eyes on the Farm Bill!

Chrysler Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons

Winslow Homer: Farmer with a Pitchfork, circa 1874

Few pieces of federal legislation merit as much and receive as little attention as the Farm Bill.1 Most people who slog through this five-hundred-page-document are stunned by its breadth and complexity. Its many provisions deal with the production of a vast range of food commodities, some well-known (cotton, feed corn, beef, and dairy) and others more obscure (mung beans, sorghum, oilseeds, and hemp). It also covers agricultural research and rural development (including housing, water treatment systems, and broadband); farm credit, trade, and insurance; meat inspection, forestry, and horticulture; and nutrition—notably the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

The Farm Bill is, in other words, about far more than farming. While it is primarily targeted at people engaged in agriculture, who make up less than 2 percent of the working population today, it effectively determines what, how, and how much the rest of us eat. At present its budget is roughly $140 billion a year, over 80 percent of which goes to SNAP and other programs directed at alleviating food insecurity, which affects over forty million Americans. But it also provides financial incentives for growing specific crops. Popular portrayals aside, farmers are not particularly romantic about their occupation; they decide what to produce based on what makes economic sense.2

For some time now the answer has been corn.3 What Michael Pollan once called a “river of commodity corn” washes through the food system in part because of federal policies that incentivize maximal production and cover farmers for losses from bad weather or dips in commodity prices.4 All that corn (and, to some extent, soybeans) enables industrial-scale meat production that, among its many ecological harms, contaminates drinking water sources and emits enormous quantities of methane.5 Overconsumption of cheap meat has also contributed to the surge in diet-linked diseases, with their attendant health care costs.6 Some 40 percent of the corn crop, meanwhile, goes to meet congressional mandates on ethanol in gasoline, thereby furthering soil erosion and groundwater depletion.7 Corn ethanol is bad energy policy, and even worse food policy.

But Congress has been unable, and unwilling, to address the fundamental pathologies in our food policy. Much of the entrenchment of the ancien regime lies in the absence of mass public attention to the Farm Bill, enabling well-financed producer interests to wield disproportionate leverage over our food policy.8 The two parties are also ideologically split over the Farm Bill’s most curious program: SNAP. In many ways the legislation has become a partisan litmus test, both parties daring to kill it outright if they do not get their way on food stamps—a struggle that reflects the broader polarization of our politics.

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A curiosity of the Farm Bill is that it must be formally reauthorized every four or five years. This is not the case with most laws, which have open-ended authorization; Congress simply appropriates funds to meet authorized needs. When was the last time Congress formally revisited the Fair Housing Act or the Clean Air Act? (Answer: 1988 and 1990, respectively.) By contrast, new versions of the Farm Bill were passed in 2018, 2014, 2008, 2002, and so on going back to 1933. Why is this the case?

The reason is that the legislators who crafted the Farm Bill’s “permanent law”—as initially codified in the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938—wanted Congress to review commodity policies frequently enough to adapt them to changes in growing and market conditions, such as droughts and shifting consumer demand. To make sure of it, they equipped the bill with a time bomb of sorts. Unless Congress formally reauthorizes the bill by a date specified in its current version, its rules on commodity production revert to language from the time of the New Deal. Some experts say this would disrupt whole agricultural sectors and even the availability of certain basic foods.9 The scariest story concerns dairy: If we reverted to the old supply management rules, the federal government would have to buy and store even more cheese and butter than it already does to keep supplies and prices stable. In the worst-case scenario, milk prices could double in months.

Like so much about the American regulatory state, agriculture’s “permanent law” has its origins in the Depression. In the mid-1930s a quarter of Americans worked the farm, often in conditions of near and actual poverty. Crop surpluses deflated commodity prices and drove many farmers into bankruptcy. As part of the New Deal response, Congress passed the first Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1933. The law instituted a range of mechanisms designed to manage production: quotas, acreage restrictions, price guarantees, and so forth. If all went to plan, surpluses would decrease, commodity prices would stay stable, and more efficient farmers would earn a profit. Seeking uses for the surpluses that still resulted, the federal government also shipped bulk commodities to states for distribution to the needy and set up the first food stamp program that enabled poor people to “purchase” surplus foods in local retail stores.10

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But different crops pose different challenges; what works for Southern cotton may not for Midwestern corn or Plains States wheat. In the decades that followed, the politics of agriculture were marked by often bitter fights between regional commodity interests. As the scholar Jonathan Coppess has observed, the sharpest “fault line” was between Southern (formerly Democratic) cotton, which wanted acreage restrictions and management rules to keep prices high, and Midwest (Republican) corn, which opposed “statist” management and demanded the right to produce as much as possible—so long as the government also bought up surplus grain.11 Other crops had their own regional alliances: New England dairy, Gulf Coast sugar, Northwest potatoes, Southwest beef. All lobbied Congress seeking crop-friendly rules and supports. Over time farm bills became agglomerations of legislative compromises and bespoke programs, included to obtain the needed majority votes. They grew so byzantine that few people could understand them other than commodity experts at Cargill or agricultural economists at Iowa State University.

Despite its centrality to how our food is produced, the Farm Bill has historically been of little interest to most American voters, especially as the nation’s population shifted to the cities and suburbs. By 1960 discussions of agricultural policy had largely disappeared from major newspapers, save for editorials that criticized the government for buying and storing surplus grain and dairy. Members of Congress from urban areas, most of them Democrats, came to question the costs of programs directed at a shrinking portion of the population, even if they ensured a ready food supply. If federal subsidies were going to well-off cotton and corn producers, what about people who struggled to put food on their tables?

Thus emerged a marriage of convenience, in which legislators from non-farm areas—led by liberal Democrats but originally also including moderate and liberal Republicans—would support farm bills only if their more conservative rural colleagues supported nutrition programs directed at the urban majority. That deal started with food stamps. During the passage of the Food Stamp Act of 1964, urban northern Democrats blocked cotton and wheat supports until the conservative southern Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee approved Lyndon Johnson’s new food stamp program. Their message was clear: no food stamps, no commodity subsidies. In time rural legislators came to see nutrition assistance as crucial to securing support from their urban colleagues for commodity programs few non-rural legislators otherwise cared about. In 1973 that “farm bloc” formally brought the Food Stamp Act under the umbrella of the Farm Bill and gave its supporters their own subcommittees on nutrition.

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The deals needed to get a farm bill reauthorized used to be cobbled together from trades among divergent commodity interests. Now they center on SNAP, the largest “commodity” of them all, which has been targeted by extremist Republicans at least since the 2010 midterm election brought a new Tea Party majority into the House.12 This cohort, which included now-familiar names like Representative Paul Gosar and former House member Mick Mulvaney, was determined to slash “out of control” discretionary federal spending. In 2011, during deliberations over reauthorizing the 2008 farm bill, they went hard at SNAP, spending on which had jumped during the Great Recession of 2007–2009. But they were opposed by farm sector Republicans worried that House Democrats would vote against any bill with major SNAP cuts. 

Leila Navidi/Star Tribune/Getty Images

Joe Biden meeting with the owners of a family farm, Northfield, Minnesota, November 1, 2023

This stalemate persisted through 2013, when Speaker John Boehner suffered an embarrassing defeat on the House floor after the Tea Partiers voted against the final bill, even after they got many of their desired SNAP cuts. To appease them, House leaders divided commodity and nutrition programs into separate bills, each passing by straight party-line votes over united Democratic opposition. These were then recombined by a House-Senate conference committee—a temporary, ad hoc panel composed to reconcile differences in legislation that has passed both chambers—to garner Democratic support in the Senate and avoid an Obama veto. Most Tea Partiers voted against the final bill, which got through because of support from Democrats.

A nearly identical story played out in 2018, even as Republicans controlled both branches. So-called “Freedom Caucus” Republicans, heirs to the Tea Party, again led the charge, and were again resisted by farm sector colleagues worried that cuts in food assistance would alienate not just Democrats but more moderate Republicans in the Senate. Again the extremists blocked initial floor passage, both because the Agriculture Committee’s bill did not make their desired cuts to SNAP and as a rebuke to House leaders for failing to move a separate immigration bill. Concessions by the leadership on SNAP eventually enabled Republicans to pass a bill over united Democratic opposition. Final passage was stalled by an impasse between House and Senate Republicans over the federal budget, leading to another government shutdown—the first under one-party control. The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 was passed that December, again only after compromises in the House-Senate conference committee on SNAP brought in the necessary Democratic votes.

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Spending on SNAP doubled during the pandemic, when millions of Americans found themselves out of work and needing food assistance. Having slowly come back down from its $120 billion-a-year peak in 2022, it remains high in part because the Biden administration separately revised the rules for benefits, in the process increasing spending by more than 20 percent. As a result, SNAP remains a huge budget target for House conservatives, who have made it clear that they will derail the Farm Bill to get their cuts, just as they used SNAP as a cudgel to force Biden to agree to last spring’s deal on the federal debt ceiling. Democrats are equally adamant: cut SNAP, and they will kill the Farm Bill. Caught in the middle are the relatively few legislators representing traditional agricultural interests who need to seek compromises to save their precious commodity programs. Given the narrow party margins in both chambers, their room to maneuver is tight.

The 2018 farm bill expired last October. Congress managed to extend it until September 30, but with the fall elections in mind, legislators in each party seem likelier to again extend reauthorization until 2025 in hopes of more favorable political conditions. At the same time, there is pressure among Republicans to get something done now, not later. Commodity prices are in a slump, hurting one of their crucial constituencies; party leaders worry that the impasse might weaken their prospects with voters. Democrats are less concerned, largely because SNAP is authorized under the Food Stamp Act. What happens in farm bill negotiations affects SNAP enrollment rules, but current enrollees are entitled to benefits in any case, unless Congress caps the program’s budget. Since this has not happened in decades, SNAP will continue under separate appropriations bills even if the Farm Bill lapses.

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Farming in America has dramatically changed since the passage of the original Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1933. Though “family farmers” are routinely trotted out during farm bill hearings, less than 2 percent of us now work the farm. We also have many fewer farms, but they are larger on average. While most are family owned, they are more like multi-million-dollar family-owned corporations than like the mom-and-pop operations that supply your local farmers market.

Much of this transformation is due to technological advances. A single farmer operating a GPS-guided John Deere 9RX series tractor (costing at least $500,000) can seed and fertilize hundreds of acres of field corn, which crop scientists hybridized to produce more kernels per acre. In short, fewer farmers on fewer but larger farms now produce more than ever, leaving smaller operations at a competitive disadvantage. The same logic goes for other basic commodities: the dairy cow, a marvel of decades of breeding, produces twice as much milk per day as it did forty years ago. The result is a flood of milk that undercuts bulk dairy prices and narrows profit margins to the point that only the largest producers can survive. The tilt toward industrial-scale milk production is a reason that the emblematic Vermont dairy farm has almost disappeared, replaced by mega-dairies in California, Texas, and Wisconsin, where thousands of cows feed on commodity corn and soy. The market imperative is clear: get big or get out.

But technology does not explain it all. As part of the New Deal’s initial production management programs, the federal government paid farmers not to grow crops or produce milk, precisely to avoid surpluses and, in some ways, to preserve family farms. But Midwest corn growers in particular hated being told how much they could produce. Once good times returned to the fields after the Depression, they attacked production management directives as little more than Stalinist five-year plans. Reformers at both ends of the political spectrum also lampooned paying farmers not to grow crops.

By the 1990s production management had been replaced with “free-market” policies that incentivized production but were backstopped by subsidized insurance to cover price fluctuations. Farmers were thus free to produce without constraints, driving down commodity prices, accelerating farm consolidation, and enabling the production of inexpensive meat and ultraprocessed foods. Any surplus grains could be shipped overseas as part of the “Food for Peace” program, begun in 1954 to send surplus American corn and wheat to the hungry in “Third World” nations, or converted to ethanol, all to keep the river of corn flowing.13

Critiques of the Farm Bill now come from both directions. On the right, scholars at the free-market American Enterprise Institute decry that federal crop insurance programs create moral hazards (farmers maximize production knowing that the government will bail them out), favor the largest producers, and offer subsidies even in good times. On the left, the Environmental Working Group excoriates crop programs that reward producers beyond the costs of production and too often enrich absentee landowners. Such policies also incentivize production on ecologically marginal lands, leading to levels of soil erosion not seen since the days of the Dust Bowl.

These arguments tend to be drowned out by lobbying and public relations machines run by the agricultural and food industries, which routinely invoke the (usually white) “family farmer” whose livelihood depends on government help. Such farmers do exist, but they often grow labor-intensive “specialty crops,” like fresh fruits and vegetables, for which insurance programs are often ill-suited or too expensive, or they struggle to compete in markets dominated by larger producers. The young growers who supply farmers markets are the exception, not the rule.

Farming is not typically seen as a progressive issue, but it could be. While conservatives present urban America as the enemy to rural voters, they back corporate-friendly policies that hand food production to ever fewer and larger operations, enable oligopolies that hurt farmers and hollow out their communities, and, by subsidizing the raw commodities going into cheap ultraprocessed products, turn so much of our food into a soulless platform for calorie delivery.

Progressives can respond with policies that help both farmers and eaters, including ending the mandate for corn ethanol in gasoline; ending commodity policies that undermine small and mid-size farms; capping the amount each farming operation can get in subsidies for the same crop; supporting more conservation programs that pay farmers not to grow on ecologically fragile lands; expanding “healthy incentives” programs that enable SNAP enrollees to buy vegetables and fruits at farmers markets; and enforcing antitrust laws to stem corporate concentration in food production, processing, and retail.

Many of the woes afflicting our food system are rooted in the Farm Bill, and it’s time progressive legislators did something about it. But first we, the eaters, need to pay attention.

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