The Farm Bill: An Overview

The Farm Bill: An Overview

The Farm Bill—the somewhat mysterious piece of legislation that funds America’s food system—is about to be simplified.

History of the Farm Bill

The first Farm Bill in 1933 was developed in response to the profound hunger and poverty caused by the Great Depression. Since that time, these provisions have remained the core of agricultural policy in the United States. The Farm Bill is reevaluated every five years. Major issues are divided into chapters, called “titles,” such as Commodities, Nutrition, Rural Development, Conservation and Livestock.

*See below for resources to learn about the 2012 Farm Bill.

1930’s // To stabilize farm prices, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s The New Deal began managing the supply of key agricultural commodities such as corn and wheat.  To counteract farmers’ tendencies to plant as much as possible to create a surplus (and drive down prices), the government required farmers to remove a portion of their land from production each year. The government also began maintaining reserves of staple grains and purchased any surplus products from farmers in high-yield years. If farmers struggled due to unforeseen circumstances such as a natural disaster, the government released the surplus. The 1936 Farm Bill, the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, linked commodity programs and soil conservation.

1950’s and 1960’s // After World War II, rising productivity driven by the rapid adoption of new technologies such as tractors (whose demand peaked around 1951) and pesticides kept the farm policy debate focused on the need to continue price supports and supply controls. DDT, a chemical used in World War II to kill the insects that carried malaria and typhus was introduced in farming to kill pests, ushering in a “golden age” of pesticide use. Because the number of acres farmers could plant was restricted, they poured these new technologies into their best land in order to increase yields.

1970’s // Policymakers predicted trade to be the path of the future and began encouraging farmers to produce as much as possible, then export their surplus.

1980’s // The export business took a turn for the worse when global prices of commodities collapsed. Left with high crop volumes stateside, prices dropped even more. Globally, other countries set their prices based on U.S. numbers and since U.S. prices had dropped sharply, so did prices worldwide.

1996 // The “Freedom to Farm” act marked the end of policies intended to control supply and stabilize farm prices. This bill eliminated the New Deal requirement that farmers hold off production on portions of their land.  During this time, all grain was put on the market as the government stopped keeping reserves, encouraging overproduction.

1997-2001 // Despite the new Freedom to Farm act, prices were collapsing. Although congress authorized emergency payments to farmers ($20 billion in 1999), it could not make up for the rapid decline in prices.  U.S. farm income declined by 16.5 percent from 1996-2001.

2002 // The 2002 Farm Bill authorized a public investment of $274 billion over six years. Nearly half the money was allocated to nutrition programs such as food stamps and emergency food assistance. Congress voted to make the emergency payments of the late 1990’s permanent in the 2002 Farm Bill.

2008 // The most recent bill was passed under the name “Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008.” It contained the following 3 main components:

  1. The Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) program that will allow farmers to choose revenue-based, market oriented protection instead of subsidy payments based on politically set target prices;
  2. $4 billion over baseline funding for conservation and working lands programs;
  3. Funding for local food programs such as the Farmers Market Promotion Program, Community Food Project grants and the Healthy Food Enterprise Development Center programs.

2011 // Since October, a congressional supercommittee has met behind closed doors in an effort to rewrite the five-year Farm Bill without utilizing a transparent process that would allow for public discourse in 2012. (See resources bel0w.)

What are subsidies?

Subsidies are payments made to farmers who raise “commodity crops” such as wheat, peanuts, rice or cotton. Subsidies protect farmers against the volatile nature of farming due to natural disasters and weather by maintaining their income over time and ensuring they are not required to maintain debt from year to year.

Subsidies are often under scrutiny by the media. Although it is assumed subsidies keep family farms in business, the reality is that most farmers do not actually benefit from federal farm programs. Only one-third of farmers and ranchers qualify for subsidies and of this group, 10 percent receive nearly 70 percent of all subsidy payments. Fruit and vegetable growers and livestock producers do not receive any subsidies [1].


[1] American Farmland Trust

Michael Pollan simplifies the Farm Bill.

 2012 Farm Bill

Learn more about the 2012 Farm Bill through the following links:

Food & Tech Connect // What the Farm Bill is Going On? A Simple Timeline of Events

Grist // Farm Bill 2012 - Article Series

The Hill // Secret Farm Bill primed for passage in debt deal

New York Times: Mark Bittman // The Secret Farm Bill

Civil Eats // Farm Bill 2012: Thinking Ahead

Civil Eats // When some farm subsidies go away, will our food system be healthy?

Food System NYC // The Farm Bill, the Field and the Players

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition // Super Fast Farm Bill? Super Fast Update!

Slow Food USA // Farm Bill 2012 Update