So how did we get here? :: A Short History of the Farm Bill(s)

Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is one of the most iconic photos taken of Dust Bowl and Depression-era America. It encapsulates a complexity of emotions, possibilities, and hardships that confronts this mother of two, living as a sharecropper recently moved points westward. As Lange herself recounted:

 I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me.

The story of this photo — how this mother came to be here, her circumstances, and her surroundings, in all their complexity —  is the story of the Farm Bills origin. Its evolution is no less complex, a series of well-intended actions to protect farmers gone awry and large-scale attempts to systematize the way American agriculture worked, bringing in new stakeholders(1) into the story of American farming.

The Farm Bill began life not as a single piece of legislation, but a series of legislative acts and executive directives brought forth by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to counter two very specific and intertwined events: the increased & aggressively detrimental Dust Bowl and the ongoing economic complications of the Great Depression. The former was a result of increased mechanization and one-crop planting that had come to define Midwestern agriculture in the early 20th century — deep plowing and planting loosened soil, and when drought cycles hit in the 1920’s, these practices allowed large amounts of topsoil to dry out and literally blow away(2). (So much so that the Capitol in Washington, D.C. was covered in a fine film for many years.) The latter was (and still is) the subject of much debate by economists and historians, but the long story short, the price fluctuations that accompanied the market collapse not only left many families unable to afford milk, grains and other products, but also left the prices of many products (determined by the Chicago commodities market) completely under the cost of production. Farmers were producing product no one could by at volumes and costs that swamped any income they did derive from it(3).

In response, and as a part of the early experimentation in what would become the New Deal programs, a series of programs and legislative acts appeared in the 1930’s to respond to the economic and ecological issues brought together by these events. Starting with the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, 6 subsequent pieces of legislation would follow through to 1938 with these intial goals:

1) To stabilize price floors for farmers — a government-backed guaranteed minimum price per bushel on crops — to ensure that they could remain solvent.

2) To develop incentives for farmers — government payments directly given to farmers — to encourage the use of ecologically sound techniques to preserve soil health and long-term agricultural utility of the land.

3) Quotas and government buying programs — used to keep production at specific levels to keep prices stable, and using the latter to buy the surplus to supplement the first of the major government food programs (food stamps and school lunches).

The initial Farm Bill legislation acted as triage for a farm sector that was bleeding profusely in the 30’s, and the Bill retained that character when it was brought up for review in 1948. Going forward, those 3 elements — price stability and assurances, conservation, and government food programs — formed a trinity of overarching themes that cover the majority of the present-day 15 titles of the Farm Bill.

From here, individual farm bills matter less than the trends that accompanied them. For example, in the 1950’s, complications began to arise with regards to those first and third principles as the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade (GATT, the precursor to the World Trade Organization) sought to eliminate those sorts of artificial price supports. This lead to a massive restructuring of how payments were calculated and conducted, leading to the introduction of direct payments to farmers (a concept we’ll come to in our next post). In the 1970’s, we saw the introduction of Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, man of the “get big or get out” school of agricultural production who oversaw not only an expansion of the subsidy program, but also more tightly focused its benefactors, specifically to the product of corn. The program saw only minor changes in content over the next several decades in terms of content, though the allocations made for its procurement would grow around 35-50% per five year period. In the 90’s, we saw an increase for conservation and rural development programs, and the institutionalizing of the organics program. Much remained the same up until the the 2007 Farm Bill, which became a watershed moment for the amount of public attention turned towards its content, thanks to a little book called “The Omnivores Dilemma”(4).

And there, in less than 1000 words, is the historical order and general shifts of the Farm Bills. Does this seem to gloss over a lot? Hell yes. Is it possible to cover all of this matter succinctly? Hell no. That’s why I am saving the content of specifics for the individual titles, to give more background and flesh out each topic in greater specifics. My goal here is to make sure these posts don’t turn you into some Dinty Moore-snogging zombie and that you get bite-size pieces that give you enough to digest. Like Dorothea Lange’s photo, each entry tells part of the story — and like the photo, there’s a lot to process in each title.  So sit back, relax, and digest. There’s more to come(5).


(1) Stakeholders is a delicious term that refers to anyone who has a “stake” or an investment in a given issue or topic. It’s also a highly problematic term, in that not all stakes are created or weighed evenly.

(2) Donald Worster, 2004 (1979) Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (25. anniversary ed) Oxford University Press.

(3) Bordo, Michael D., Claudia Goldin, and Eugene N. White , eds., The Defining Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century (1998) University of Chicago Press.

(4) Most of this information is being drawn off a number of Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports on the Farm Bill. If you’re unfamiliar with the CRS, it’s a great institution that boils down the details of legislation and research for members of Congress, with an emphasis on dispassionate, fact-based review. Many of these reports are not available for public consumption, however at you can find many (search Farm Bill) for some of the ones used here. (Think of it as additional reading for the especially geeky!)

(5) In an effort to be succinct yet brilliant, I am in fact limiting myself to entries of about 1000 words. I could let myself go on for ages on given topics, but 1000 words is almost 4 pages of reading. That’s a hunk these days. And it forces me to be concise and consider the most important parts of each section I’m creating here.


About The Farm Bill Almanac

Farm Bill Almanac is an blog dedicated to breaking down the wonkishness and complexity of the US Farm Bill, and other delicious agricultural & food related regulations. Succinct, yet brilliant, FBA likes long walks on the beach, natural wines, and hiking.
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One Response to So how did we get here? :: A Short History of the Farm Bill(s)

  1. Pingback: How Green It Is To Be (Un)Loved By You: Conservation Programs & The Farm Bill | farmbillalmanac

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