December 18, 2013
No Farm Bill for ChristmasBy Stewart Truelsen
Chances are you’ll have plenty of opportunity over the Christmas holiday season to see the classic Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Produced in 1946, it starred James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore.
Stewart is George Bailey, a small-town savings and loan operator, who wishes that he never lived. Clarence, a guardian angel, is sent from heaven to let him see what the town of Bedford Falls would be like without him. It’s a sad sight. Even the name of the town has changed to Pottersville because Mr. Potter, the miserly banker played by Barrymore, controls everything.
Perhaps, the farm bill needs to be viewed in a similar fashion. What if there had never been a farm bill?
There are plenty of critics who wish that were the case, and Congress has failed to enact a new farm bill since the last one expired in 2012.
The first farm bill or Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 was an emergency response to two disasters, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Ed O’Neal, then president of the American Farm Bureau, warned President Roosevelt that a revolution was about to take place in rural America. Farmers were in deep despair. Farm income had fallen 70 percent; farms were being foreclosed and many rural banks shut their doors.
Without the New Deal farm bill, the whole American agricultural system of family farms and ranches would have been in jeopardy. A communal system of farming similar to Russia’s at the time could have replaced family farms. As in Russia, food shortages would have been commonplace.
Initially, farm bills sought to address the most pervasive problem confronting American agriculture, excess capacity resulting in low farm prices. Farm income averaged only half of nonfarm income. Government support helped preserve an agricultural base in America by adjusting production to meet market needs.
At times, farmers themselves wanted to get the government completely out of agriculture. They didn’t like many of the programs that stockpiled commodities and set aside land. But this was wishful thinking. There is too much risk for farmers to farm without a safety net and too much risk for consumers who need a stable, affordable food supply.
Over time, farm bills transitioned away from production controls and direct payments to farmers to more market-oriented programs to take advantage of expanding global markets. Federal crop insurance became the major means of providing a safety net. Once limited primarily to major commodities, the farm bill now provides programs for growers of fruits, nuts and vegetables.
Other changes included a growing emphasis on conservation and environmental stewardship. The farm bill is the single, largest source of funding for conservation and environmental quality programs on private lands. Various other farm bill titles and provisions cover research, bioenergy, foreign food aid and domestic nutrition assistance.
What would rural America look like had the farm bill never existed? Would it look like Pottersville? Who can say. Obviously, the success of American agriculture is due to much more than federal legislation, but don’t say a farm bill is not needed.
Stewart Truelsen, a food and agriculture freelance writer, is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series.