The United States Congress addresses agricultural and food policy through a variety of programs, including nutrition assistance, conservation of natural resources, and grain commodity support. The primary framework for agricultural policy is set through a legislative process that occurs about every five years.
The current farm bill is known as the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. It was written to remain in force through 2012. Last year, Congress debated content that would be included in a new farm bill, which should have begun in 2013. Unable to come to an agreement, however, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 extended most of the provisions of the 2008 legislation without change through the end of 2013. As I write this article in December, I do not know if a new farm bill will be approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives and signed by the president before the end of 2013.
What is the history of farm policy in the United States? Initially, agriculture policy was dominated by development policy, which was directed at supporting family farms and the inputs of the total agricultural sector, such as land, research and human labor. This included the Land Act of 1820, which required citizens to make the full payment at the time of purchase of land—as opposed to the previous credit payment system. To spur sales and make it more affordable, the minimum required price of public-domain land was reduced from $2 per acre to $1.25 an acre. The legislation also reduced the minimum size of a tract of land from 160 to 80 acres. At that time, these lands were located on the “frontier” within Ohio and other western territories, such as Missouri.
In 1862, the Homestead Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. It stated that any U.S. citizen could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed government land. For the next five years, the homesteader had to live on the land and improve it by building a 12′ x 14′ dwelling and growing crops. After five years, the homesteader could file for a deed or title to the land by submitting proof of residency and the required improvements to a local land office.
Also passed in 1862, the Morrill Act initiated the land-grant college system, one in a long series of acts that provided public support of agricultural research and education. The University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana is a land-grant college.
After the First World War, farm commodity price supports began. The destructive effects of the war and the surrender burdens enforced bankrupted much of Europe, which closed major export markets in the United States. This was the beginning of a series of events that would lead to the development of agricultural price and income support policies.
In 1933, with many farmers losing money and going bankrupt because of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). This legislation began regulating agricultural production by destroying crops and artificially reducing supplies. The bill allowed farmers to receive payment for not growing food on a percentage of their land as allocated by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. It also enabled the government to buy excess grain from farmers, which could then be sold if bad weather or other circumstances negatively affected output. The AAA of 1933 also included a nutrition program—the precursor to food stamps.
The current farm bill could also be referred to as the “food” bill, as 75 percent of its budget is for SNAP (Supplemental Food Assistance Program or Nutrition section), and most of the remaining 25 percent is for the Commodities section (crop insurance, conservation programs, research, forestry, etc.). As both the House and Senate have debated a new farm bill, the primary differences are proposed cuts in the SNAP program and splitting Nutrition and Commodities into two completely different programs.
The farm community and all of our citizens need a five-year farm bill. Past experience has proven that food security is necessary for the health and safety of a nation’s citizens. A farm bill assists with accomplishing that goal. I hope we have one as you read this in 2014. iBi