Understand the Farm Bill — Our Lives and this Earth Depend on It

Many Americans have no idea how agriculture and agriculture policy works in the US. Congress revisits what’s called the Farm Bill every 5–7 years, but do most of us know how much this impacts our daily lives? The deals made in this bill directly impact the cost of our food. They also have an impact on how we protect our environment. I’m writing this article as a farmer who wants to help people better understand the farm bill and the complex food systems we have here in the United States. In order to not repeat history, we must first understand the past…

Timeline Summary of 310 Years in 10 Points (1709-present):

  1. The British and later US forces remove Indigenous Peoples off their land through multiple acts of genocide.
  2. Homestead Acts steal land from Indigenous Peoples & give solely to white men.
  3. Universities & ag-research labs are established to colonize the US.
  4. Farmers destroy the land while producing to fuel European wars.
  5. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl follows.
  6. Eisenhower’s Secretary of Ag kicks 3 million farmers out of agriculture.
  7. Farming policy is established to support capitalist agribusiness and not farmers.
  8. Conservation efforts are created, but they don’t offset farming destruction.
  9. Farmers keep being used as political bargaining chips (national & global).
  10. Food production today still isn’t about feeding people; it’s about the success of people who aren’t actually growing food as well as imperialist US capitalism.


1790 Naturalization Act Legislation

It must be said that all forms of production in the United States began with indigenous genocide and slavery. The US Census stated that there were 3.2 million slaves in 1850. There can be no underestimation made of slavery’s role in building the United States for the benefit of European-descended peoples.

The 1790 Naturalization Act only allowed “free white persons” to become naturalized citizens. This opened the doors to European immigrants but not to others. “Only citizens could vote, serve on juries, hold office, [and] hold property. In this century, Alien Land Laws […] reserved farmland for white growers by, preventing Asian immigrants, ineligible to become citizens, from owning or leasing land. Immigration restrictions further limited opportunities for nonwhite groups. Racial barriers to naturalized U.S. citizenship weren’t removed until the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952, and white racial preferences in immigration remained until 1965.” ~PBS

“[European colonizers were] given [another] head start with the help of the U.S. Army. The 1830 Indian Removal Act forcibly relocated [Indigenous Peoples] to west of the Mississippi River to make room for white colonizers” (PBS, 2003). This made way for the Homestead Acts (1829–1916), which overwhelmingly gave white colonizers ownership of 270 million acres of Indigenous Peoples’ lands (10% of the entire United States). Also, a land-grant complex of education, research, and extension was established to ensure colonization of these lands. Further Acts would give colonizers public universities for agriculture and engineering, as well as research stations and extension offices.

European colonial agriculture established farms that supplied wheat to Europe and other allies during and immediately after World War I. The Food Control Act of 1917 encouraged production and the government set market prices for farmers. Farmers became unstable after WWI, because Europeans were producing food again. Farm states asked for government help in bad market conditions, but the government failed to create national policy. The Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929 barely balanced farm prices. After President Hoover urged farmers to voluntarily reduce production, five Southern states passed (but did not do) “cotton holiday” laws in 1932 to show that production restrictions might happen because of politics.

THE NEW DEAL: 1933- 1941

The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 represents America’s first full Farm Bill. This listed certain commodity crops like wheat, corn, and soy. The federal government tried to help farmers stay on par with other industries. Henry A. Wallace’s vision for an “ever-normal granary” in 1933 became the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which held onto extra commodity crops at the government’s expense. The CCC popped up across the landscape as groups of “government bins” appeared.

In 1936, the Supreme Court said this funding method was unconstitutional. Congress responded by coming up with the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act. Under this Act, the federal government took public monies to pay farmers who planted “soil-saving” crops instead of “soil-destroying” crops like corn and wheat. People’s interest in having healthy soil was growing, so this alternative stayed constitutional. The 2nd Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 signed these restrictions and the CCC into law.

Dust from the Great Plains Reaches Washington DC in the Dust Bowl

The New Deal addressed environmental destruction that began during the settler-colonist era of agricultural expansion. The colonizers’ destruction only got worse during the so-called “Dirty Thirties.” As drought worsened and deadly dust storms raged, wanting healthy soil gained political points. The situation was so bad that Hugh Hammond Bennett stalled his Congressional testimony in Washington, DC by waiting on a massive “duster” from the Great Plains to force a dust cloud into the hearing chamber.

The results of New Deal agricultural programs were mixed. Some of it addressed the Great Depression and the environmental destruction of colonizers that led to the Dust Bowl. Farmers had immediate benefits, including a 50% increase in farm income from 1932 to 1935 (25% from government payments). Farms that specialized in commodity crops benefited more than diverse farms. They still do today. This means that the farmers who grow the most nutritious foods do not get assistance. Environmental programs were weak in the face of rising commodity crop prices. Settler-colonial farmers tended to fall in line with government programs for the money.

WAR, PEACE, AND PLENTY: 1942- 1955

Settler-colonist farmers produced a lot during World War II. By 1942, farmers once again favored money over taking care of the soil. Production increased in the 20th century with technologies like commercial seed, petroleum-based inputs, and mechanization. Farmers adopted these methods quickly because of government programs that incentivized mass production over earth-friendly practices. These gains in per-acre productivity increased commodity surpluses and damaged environmental programs.

Congress gave more money in the Stabilization Act of 1942 to calm farmers who were scarred by the economic disasters they helped cause in the 1920s and 1930s. Congress continued to give income supports in 1948, 1949, and 1952 by renewing this Act. The Agricultural Act of 1949 permanently changed the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, and together the 1938 and 1949 farm bills make up the laws that are American agricultural policy of today.

Without war, settler-colonist farmers faced the same problems as after WWII. The whole US economy risked recession. President Eisenhower and Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson wanted capitalist solutions to the “farm problem”. Benson condemned farmers to “get big or get out” through a change in the Smith-Lever Act. This told extension services to make farmers who were not considered productive enough by Benson’s standards to get out of farming. Small farms were pushed out of the industry the most, and capitalist agribusinesses gained power.

US Map of the World in 1942 (Library of Congress)

Congress decided to base payments on a sliding scale in the Agricultural Act of 1954. This change came with two major developments. Firstly, this made the Farm Bureau, which fights for market capitalism and was mainly made for the corn-producing Midwest. Secondly, this brought international export markets that expanded after World War II. In 1948, the imperialist government of the United States helped rebuild European agricultural through the Marshall Plan. 45 countries then became new markets between 1945 and 1954 through political shifts and nations across the globe gaining independence from European colonial powers. This helped export opportunities for commodity crops. The Agricultural Trade Development Assistance Act of 1954 — known as Public Law was the foundation for these exports.


Policymakers put production controls back in place in response to increasing commodity crops in the mid-1950s. Congress rejected Benson’s agribusiness capitalist solutions that kicked three million Americans off of farms and reduced farmer pay. The Agricultural Act of 1956 created a two-part Soil Bank program that set aside 4.9 million acres (7656 sq miles) from production for environmental efforts.

Cracked dry land in West Texas, 1951

The outcomes of the Soil Bank were mixed. Small farmers used public money to keep big banks from taking their land, and it helped them farm less aggressively. The Soil Bank helped tackle the mini-Dust Bowl in the early 1950s. It also set-aside farmland for creating wildlife habitat. The set-aside programs still didn’t keep farmers from destructively over-producing commodity crops. Once again, reducing acres failed to reduce crop surpluses because technology in the field was increasing overall productivity more than taking out land could reduce it.

By 1961, commodity crop surpluses became the main focus of agricultural policy. Supply management replaced market-oriented policies for next ten years. John F. Kennedy wanted to reintroduce New Deal era marketing and production controls. The Emergency Feed Grains Act of 1961 was renewed for many years. The conservation trend of the era continued through the 1960s, but reducing acres was again offset by increased farm productivity. In other words, capitalism and destructive production continued to out-weigh taking care of the Earth.


In 1972, the United States wanted to export what added up to be more than 80% of the US’s demand for wheat to the Soviet Union. Dubbed the “Russian Grain Robbery,” this policy challenged wheat demand in the US, made Americans pay three times the price, doubled corn and soybean prices, and increased several meat prices in the US in less than a year. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told American farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow” to mass produce commodities to fight high production costs. The environment suffered greatly as a result. Soil erosion increased and wildlife populations were destroyed because of production.

Policies that told farmers to just mass produce and improvements in agricultural technology created an immediate excess of commodity crops, especially corn. Secretary Butz believed that this approach would reduce crop prices and increase exports, and the US again leaned on capitalist policies and exports. The Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act of 1973 replaced the New Deal era concept of target payments and deficiency payments to support commodity farmers’ incomes as prices were allowed to fall.

Having a global, capitalist policy came with many risks. In 1980, President Carter hit the Soviet Union economically with a partial grain embargo after their invasion of Afghanistan. Carter’s own administration warned that American agriculture would be caught in the crossfire, but they did not foresee just how bad US farmers would suffer on top of the embargo. Carter’s Farm Crisis became the worst financial situation in agriculture since the 1930s. The Agriculture and Food Act of 1981 was created before the crisis was fully understood, and made things worse by extending Butz-era farm programs for another four years.

A bumper crop in 1982 set record surpluses and the CCC’s inventories reached new highs. In 1983, the Reagan administration implemented a payment-in-kind program as an alternative to direct market sale. Farmers could get certificates for CCC-stored grain as payment if they also reduced production of that commodity. The program reduced surplus, but Reagan cost American taxpayers tens of billions of dollars per year just as the economy was facing recession.


US farm policy in the mid-1980s was shaped by sunken commodity crop prices and farm incomes, and a worsening global economic situation. Typical policies were joined by novel conservation programs that remain popular today. We’re still doing more damage than good to the environment through farming. The Food Security Act of 1985 was the first farm bill to include a specific category for conservation. Unlike previous conservation programs that had farmers set-aside land to control production, the 1985 farm bill outlined natural resource protection in addition to supply management.

Conservation programs in the 1985 farm bill first wanted to fix environmental destruction caused by farming in the 1970s and create wildlife habitat. Swampbuster and Sodbuster programs were designed to protect wetlands and grasslands by stopping people from farming them. The Conservation Reserve Program paid farmers to not use a total of 6.1 million acres (9,531 sq mi) of erosion-sensitive land for at least 10 years. The Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 created two more conservation programs — the Wetland Reserve Program and the Agricultural Water Quality Program.

Next came conservation compliance and the Environmental Benefits Index. To prevent production and conservation programs from working against each other, conservation compliance allowed farmers to join commodity crop programs based on their conservation practices. The Environmental Benefits Index checked on multiple environmental outcomes from conservation projects with the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990.

“Freedom to Farm”

While the 1985 and 1990 farm bills revolutionized conservation programs, the 1996 farm bill majorly changed commodity programs. The main outcome of the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 is best understood by its popular name: “Freedom to Farm.” This policy increased flexibility by removing acreage restrictions from commodity production. It also separated income support payments from crop prices.


Without several decades of historical perspective, it is difficult to determine how recent farm bills contribute to the long-term path of US farmers, farm policy, and ourselves. Three important issues — biofuels, crop insurance, and colonialism— need to be discussed here, because each relate to themes seen throughout the history of US farm policy.

The biofuel industry brought American agriculture into a new market. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 became the first farm bill to include an energy title. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 adjusted previous policies to focus more specifically on the development of plant-based energy, rather than corn grain energy. We don’t yet know if this biofuel era will be about production or conservation. Collecting plant parts from harvested row crops will damage organic matter cycles and harm soil quality. We currently only have 56 years of topsoil left if we continue on in this way… and it takes between 500–1,000 years for natural cycles to produce an inch of topsoil.

A shift in the conversation about foods that don’t ultimately put healthy food on our tables (commodity crops), to ones that do (mainly fruits and vegetables) has never been discussed. As we can see, the US has always looked at farming from the perspective of colonizing North America, feuling wars, and controlling capitalist competition with the rest of the world. It has never really been about feeding people; and it has only really been about doing business. Though we do have food programs in place for people, programs like SNAP do not actually get to the core issues of farmers being able to survive by selling nutritious food or making nutritious food affordable for people while being kind to the environment. Instead, all we have now is a system of agribusinesses and what is basically a grain stock exchange.

The legacy of genocide and theft left by European decended peoples has also not yet ended. The US is rife with racism and white nationalism. The largest civil rights settlement paid out by the government (Pigford v Glickman) was in 1999 to the tune of $1 billion. This suit was brought due to racial discrimination against Black farmers in the allocation of farm loans and assistance between 1981 and 1996. The claims were so numerous that a congressional appropriation (called Pigford II) had to be made in 2010 to the sun of $1.5 billion.

The continued forced removal of Indigenous Peoples is also still happening. Pipelines have ripped up ceremonial and burial sites and the people who are constructing them are weaponizing police forces and utilizing paramilitary to attack Indigenous Peoples. Ancestral lands at the US boarder are also being destroyed awaiting a wall that will hopefully never be built and the handling of Central and South American people is to the point where children and parents are separated and locked in cages.

The road is long.


“What is Food Insecurity?”

Through the history of the farm bill, conservation and commodity programs have worked against each other. Although the main goal of supply management policy from 1933 until today has been surplus control, these systems have failed their mission. Furthermore, environmental protection programs almost wholly focus on reducing or fixing the negative effects of commodity production and policy instead of actually being able to fix anything altogether. While we do have SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, this program only subsidizes consumption. Taxpayers pay into the system, people receive much needed aid, but then agribusinesses take home the profits. This is essentially a pass-thru system that mainly benefits agribusinesses (food processors, packagers, grocery stores, etc.) and not farmers. Still, food aide programs are necessity as 40 million Americans are currently food insecure; 12 million of these people are children.

More recent changes to the farm bill forced by the Trump administration include holding US farmers hostage through incredibly unsuccessful export trade wars, and US taxpayers are footing the bill. Meeting the needs of a growing population puts lots of pressure on land, water, biodiversity resources, and all levels of agriculture. Everyone from producers to processors, to politicians, to the public would benefit from a holistic approach to agricultural policy that makes agricultural productivity work together with environmental protection and human welfare.

This article has been adapted from (PDF): “A historical primer on the US farm bill: Supply management and conservation policy” [accessed Dec 30 2018], which is available here.

Educator, Farmer, Sociolinguist. Kansas born, Mexica Herbalist. M.A. Curriculum & Instruction; B.A. German; Business Minor

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