The Next Farm Bill: Will it Look Backward or Forward?

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The Next Farm Bill:

Will it Look Backward or Forward?

Robbin S. Johnson*

C. Ford Runge**

Prepared for the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C. with support from the Hewlitt Foundation. We gratefully acknowledge the research assistance and support of Kari Heerman.

* Robbin S. Johnson is a Teaching Fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota and formerly Senior Vice President, Cargill, Inc., Minnetonka, Minnesota.

** C. Ford Runge is Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota and Director, Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy (CIFAP).

U.S. Agricultural Policy: Looking Backward1
This paper will focus on what are traditionally called the “commodity programs”: the main subsidy provisions which underwrite U.S. agriculture. In addition to dairy supports, the commodity programs are aimed primarily at five field crops: corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice. In fact, these five crops today account for over 90 percent of all farm subsidies. While other programs cover crops such as sugar, tobacco, peanuts and a host of fruits and vegetables subject to “marketing orders,” the five main field crops plus dairy receive the main share of subsidies under Title I of U.S. agricultural legislation, the “Commodity Title.” It is this aspect of farm policy on which our analysis will concentrate. In other papers, we will consider biofuels, agricultural trade, and rural development. As Congress prepares to authorize a new farm bill, we have sought to sketch a case for reform.
The origin of commodity price supports may be traced to attempts during the farm depression of the 1920s to establish “parity” prices for farmers based on a 1910-1914 index, when farm prices were especially attractive. The first serious attempt to achieve parity prices for farmers involved the division of the market for a commodity like wheat into a domestic market and a foreign market. Supplies in the domestic market would be limited to an amount that would drive up domestic farm prices to the parity level; the remainder, or the surplus, would be dumped on the foreign market for whatever it would bring. The plan was introduced into the Congress in 1924, and in each succeeding year through 1928. Although vetoed by President Coolidge, it laid the groundwork for subsequent efforts to raise farm prices through government intervention.
Between the stock market crash of 1929 and 1932, farm prices continued to decline, falling over 50 percent in three years. In the face of this near total collapse, President Hoover attempted to stem the tide with a Federal Farm Board, making loans to stabilization corporations and acquiring surpluses in an effort to hold them off the market. The Farm Board and its stabilization corporations did not have the financial capacity to stem the decline in world prices of staple commodities.
In April 1929, President Hoover recommended to Congress a limited upward revision of tariffs as a means of protecting domestic agricultural markets. In response to the presidential recommendation, Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, raising tariff duties to an all-time high. This action set off a wave of protectionism around the world, serving to shut off foreign trade of all kinds and exports of American farm products in particular.
After these policy failures, agricultural economists devised an alternative, the Domestic Allotment Plan, in which each farmer would receive an allotment, or “right to produce,” based on farm production history. The sum total of such rights was to coincide with domestic consumption levels. The allotment would thus provide a subsidy only on domestic production; the remaining surplus would enter export markets at world prices. This “two-price” scheme, while never enacted, resurfaced in the famous Agricultural Adjustment Acts of the New Deal.
The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), adopted May 12, 1933, was established as part of a tripartite New Deal “emergency” agricultural policy. Title I, the AAA, dealt with price and income supports. Title II provided for debt relief and farm credit, while Title III authorized the president to manipulate the exchange value of the currency. Title I contained elements of the proposals of the 1920s as well as provisions to control production through acreage reduction on individual farms, the authority to purchase and store commodities, and the authority to regulate the marketing of specialty crops through the employment of marketing agreements and orders. To implement these tools as “base acres” on individual farms,2 the parity concept and “nonrecourse loans”3 were forged.
The centerpiece of the AAA was the reduction of production through the control of crop acreages on individual farms. For complying with the approved reduction in crop acreage, farmers received a benefit payment. The money to make these benefit payments was to be raised through excise or processing taxes on the commodities involved.
This essential feature—acreage control in return for government payments—remained at the heart of all subsequent policies until the mid-1980s. But appraisals of the AAA in 1933-36 reached two conclusions. First, the production control features of the AAA were largely unsuccessful. Farmers in the 1930s found ways to circumvent the acreage control programs by “renting” their poorest acres to the government and by raising noncontrolled crops on the controlled acreage so that the total production of each farm was reduced little if at all. This came to be known as “slippage.” (The droughts of 1934 and 1936 did, however, reduce total agricultural production.) On the positive side, the benefit payments to farmers succeeded in bolstering the farm economy, helping farmers to purchase food, feed and supplies, and pay taxes. Thus, all but a handful of farmers supported the AAA, as did their farm organizations.
The Supreme Court found the AAA unconstitutional in early 1936 on grounds that processing taxes on commodities used to finance the control of their production was illegal. New farm legislation was enacted in 1938, eliminating the processing tax. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 for the first time provided comprehensive price support and production control based on the constitutional authority of Congress to regulate interstate and foreign commerce.
World War II did for the U.S. economy what the New Deal could not do; it brought full employment and pulled surplus labor on farms out of agriculture and into industries. Farm prices and incomes began to rise substantially. Whatever discontent had formed to the farm programs of the New Deal was forgotten as farmers reveled in their prosperity.
Yet worry was widespread over the prospect of a farm depression immediately following the end of the war. In the event, farm prices did not collapse as so many people expected. Because of the destruction in Europe and Asia, and the strong demand for food stocks and supplies among the victorious and occupying powers to feed the hungry, food stocks remained short and supplies inadequate. As a result, farm and retail food prices soared between 1945 and 1948. They dipped modestly in 1949 and moved upward again in 1950 and 1951 in response to the Korean War.
When wartime price support legislation expired at the end of 1948, the policy debate anticipated conflicts over commodity programs down to the present day. Two camps were identifiable. The principal policy goal of the first camp was to lower the level of price support on farm commodities and thereby reduce the extent of government intervention in the farm economy. In this camp were to be found most, but not all, Republican party leaders, businessmen from the agribusiness complex, and most economists. The overriding goal of the second camp was to maintain a high level of farm price support as a means of protecting farm incomes. They would accept whatever government intervention was required to implement the price support objective. Here were to be found Democratic party leaders from the South and the Plains, most, but by no means all, farm organization leaders (the president of the Farm Bureau was no longer supportive of high price supports) and some government economists and union leaders.
In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Ezra Taft Benson Secretary of Agriculture. Benson believed that government intervention in the economy was wrong and determined, with the support of the American Farm Bureau, to move to a system of flexible and market-oriented price supports. Yet farm prices began to sag in 1952, and by 1953 were falling badly. At the same time, productivity in agriculture due to technological advance was increasing rapidly.
To deal with the growing problem of surpluses, the “soil bank” concept was enacted into law in the Agricultural Act of 1956. It had two main parts. One was the Acreage Reduction Program (ARP) which operated in 1956, 1957 and 1958. Under this program, some 21 million acres were “banked,” so that no crop could be harvested and livestock could not be pastured. The second was the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), designed to assist farmers to reduce the production of crops by shifting below-average cropland into long-range conservation uses.
Another policy idea developed in this period was to dispose of surplus agricultural products abroad, primarily in the less-developed world, through sales for nonconvertible foreign currency and other “soft” or concessional terms. This idea was enacted into law in the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, better known as P.L. 480 or “Food for Peace.”

The 1960s brought a new administration to Washington, convinced that farm prices could be increased and government costs could be reduced through a combination of demand expansion and mandatory production controls. Wheat farmers voted down mandatory production controls in referendum on May 21, 1963, ending all efforts by the Kennedy-Johnson administration to deal with the farm price and income problem in this manner. Congress then passed the Agricultural Act of 1964, which gave farmers participating in the acreage control program price support at $2.00 per bushel on their domestic share of the market, plus a voluntary acreage control program in which farmers were paid to retire their wheat base acres from production. This “paid diversion” added yet another twist to the basic quid pro quo of dollars for reduced production. To make cotton and wheat more competitive in international markets, the administration concocted programs which lowered the domestic price support of these commodities down to the export (or world market) price while guaranteeing producers that they would be paid the 1963 support value for their domestic share—$2.00 per bushel for wheat and 30 cents per pound for cotton. Once again, a “two-price” plan prevailed.

This export-oriented strategy, which prevailed through the 1970s, was not unanimously praised. Export-oriented agriculture in general received especially bad publicity as a result of the infamous Soviet grain deal, valued at 750 million dollars, in the summer of 1972. This drove grain prices sky high in 1973-74. Yet the Agricultural and Consumer Protection Act of 1973 was a direct extension of the acts of 1965 and 1970, with one new concept: a “target price”—a “what-ought-to-be price”—for measuring the size of the income support, or “deficiency payments” to farmers.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter appointed Bob Bergland, a farmer from northern Minnesota, to be his secretary of agriculture. The Food and Agricultural Act of 1977 carried farm policies and programs forward largely as they had emerged in the acts of 1965, 1970 and 1973. The contribution of the Carter administration was a frank recognition of the growing concentration of production among fewer large farmers, and the decline of the small and medium-sized farm. Farms in the United States declined from 6.7 million in 1934 to 2.7 million in 1978. Some 64,000 farmers in 1978 with sales valued at $200,000 or more accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total sales from farming.
The election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980, with landslide support in farm districts reacting to the Carter embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union following its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, brought what many felt would be a hard-edged conservatism back to agricultural policy. Few predicted that after decrying Carter’s excessive spending on commodity programs, which reached an annual high of $3 billion, Reagan would go on to spend nearly $26 billion in 1986.
The Agriculture and Food Act of 1981 was passed by the Congress and signed by Reagan in December 1981. It contained 17 titles ranging from floral research to dairy price supports. It also contained all the major elements of the farm programs of the 1970s. A combination of good weather and weak production controls in 1982 produced record breaking crops. Grain exports, given a mounting world recession, also declined. These developments caused USDA-controlled inventories and loans outstanding to soar in 1982-83 to heights never experienced, leading to the Payment-In-Kind (PIK) program. Under PIK, the Office of Management and Budget hoped to keep farm program payments “off-budget” by paying for massive land retirements with grain stocks already owned by the government. But as the emergency PIK program attempted to cut into surpluses, the forces of nature intervened unexpectedly—a major drought hit the corn belt in 1983, reinforcing the effects of PIK and driving down surplus stocks. However, even more powerful events were conspiring to drive agriculture into a true crisis. Falling export demand was coupled with rising real interest rates, as the inflationary period of the 1970s was forced to an end. The Federal Reserve Bank under Chairman Paul Volcker concluded that the pain of deflation was to be endured in the name of slaying inflation. The result was an extraordinary turn-around in real interest rates. These rates, which had actually been negative in 1979, at the height of the Carter inflation, were allowed to rise by 1983 into double digits, and actually exceeded 20 percent in real terms for a time, as the Fed hit the money supply brakes.
The farm sector was caught in a pincer: falling export demand resulted in declining overall farm prices and incomes, while rising real interest rates made large investments in farmland and equipment, which had boomed in the 1970s, suddenly appear to have been grave mistakes in judgment. Farmland and asset values, which had appreciated by over 500 percent in many rural areas, suddenly began a downward spiral that would not end until the late 1980s. As farmland fell in price, loans taken out in the boom days of the 1970s started going bad, and highly leveraged farmers were seriously threatened with total losses.
This situation developed rapidly into an agricultural depression in which many large and previously wealthy farmers appeared to face total ruin. This set the scene for the 1985 farm bill debate. When the nearly 1,000 page bill was signed into law, it retained all of the old mechanisms of target prices, loan rates and acreage reduction. The essential compromise resulted from a desire, first, to protect farm incomes by holding target prices steady. In order to reduce the number of acres on which generous subsidies were paid, large Acreage Reduction Programs (ARPs), as high as 27.5 percent in wheat, were implemented. The second objective was to regain lost export markets. A third distinguishing feature of the 1985 bill was the re-creation of a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), this time with the objective of removing 45 million acres from production. The new CRP, together with much stricter conservation requirements accompanying price supports, signaled the emergence of a potent new lobby in agricultural policy: environmental interest groups.
The export competitiveness sought by the 1985 farm bill appeared to have been achieved by the late 1980s as a falling dollar and lower loan rates took hold. In the United States, a conviction to use the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to help move toward changes in domestic policy led to a radical trade proposal in the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade talks beginning in 1986 to reform agricultural programs by doing away with the majority of them and substituting direct income supports in their place, “decoupling” payments from specific crops.
As the 1990 farm bill drew near (the 1985 bill created a five-year cycle, in an attempt to allow new administrations greater influence over policy), there was increasing recognition that farm policy was an increasingly antiquated and extraordinarily expensive enterprise. But what could be done? A combination of tax cuts and major increases in government spending under Reagan (largely for defense, but also for agriculture), led to huge deficits.
But over and above the need for deficit reduction was the greatest of all political imperatives: re-election. How could costs be trimmed in a way that was least painful to politicians facing races every two or six years? The result was a compromise 1990 farm bill feature known as “flexibility.” Flexible acreage could be planted to any program crop that was not a “fruit or vegetable,” and still receive guaranteed support, but at a reduced level. The political bargain was: “we will give the farmer flexibility, and he will surrender a portion of his deficiency payment guarantee.”
Another force driving the 1990 bill was the environmental movement, which demanded that CRP be extended and expanded, while a new Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) was established.
In 1996, encouraged by surging exports, high farm prices and falling deficits under President Clinton, the Republican majority in the House led by Speaker Newt Gingrich and Agriculture Committee Chairman (now Senator) Pat Roberts (R-KS) took a fateful step. The 1996 bill, originally dubbed the “Freedom to Farm” bill, not only decoupled payments from production, but ramped them down over the 1997-2001 period so that the farm sector would at last freely face the market’s winds, from which they had been largely sheltered since 1933.
But it was not difficult to see a central problem with this scheme. The problem was that market price signals were distorted by two factors. One was a new “marketing loan” feature that paid farmers when prices fell below the loan level without requiring them to forfeit their crop as collateral. This tended to encourage production even as commodity prices were falling. The other factor was that subsidies under the 1996 farm bill started at high levels in 1996 and 1997 and were scheduled to fall each year from 1998 to 2001. Hence, falling prices were not offset by rising subsidies—exactly the opposite. There was, in economic jargon, no “counter-cyclicality” to the lump-sum payments.
Predictably, farm groups began to chafe in 1998 as prices fell along with subsidies, triggering political demands, usually based on localized weather events, for “emergency relief.” Regardless of weather, Congress stepped up to the plate with year after year of these “emergency” payments, leading then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, eager to discredit Republicans, to observe that every year is an emergency year in farm country. These generous emergency payments offset the cuts in subsidies under the 1996 legislation, upping the ante and returning the farm sector to its traditional entitlement psychology.
By the time the 1996 bill was passed, U.S. agricultural production came from for by about 2.1 million farms. But this included a multitude of hobbyists, part-timers and absentee landlords who placed acreage in conservation easements. By the mid-1990s about 85 percent of U.S. production was accounted for by no more than 400,000 producers, who were technologically and politically sophisticated by any standard. These 400,000 received nearly 90 percent of all subsidy payments. Under the 1996 legislation, total subsidy payments amounted to a whopping $91.58 billion over six years, an average of $15.3 billion a year. Subsidy payments rose almost three-fold from 1996 to 1999 and stayed at or above $20 billion through 2001 because Congress topped off subsidy payments with “emergency assistance” and loan deficiency payments, adding $13.7 billion in these two categories in 1999, $14.9 billion in 2000, and $13 billion in 2001.
By 2002, the first Congressional election year in George W. Bush’s first term, before budget surpluses had reverted to huge deficits from new rounds of tax cuts, both Republicans and Democrats shed any illusions about getting government out of agriculture. Instead, they orchestrated a complete retreat from the market-orientation of earlier farm bills. In its place they competed to offer more and better subsidies for political reasons alone, markets and trade policy be damned.
Under the 2002 farm bill, what used to be “emergency” funding became the new status quo. Payments under the Commodity Title of the 2002 Farm Bill came in three forms: direct payments, marketing assistance loans, and countercyclical payments. Direct payments on corn rose from 26 cents in 2002 to 28 cents. Wheat rose from 46 cents to 52 cents. Soybeans were granted a direct payment of 44 cents for the first time. The price floor established by the marketing assistance loans also increases from $1.89 per bushel to $1.98 in 2002-2003 for corn, from $2.58 to $2.80 for wheat, and decreases from $5.26 to $5.00 for soybeans, which were thought to be getting too far out ahead of corn. The marketing loans assured farmers a loan deficiency payment if the local price is below the loan rate. The third category of subsidy, the counter-cyclical income support payment, was to be made whenever the “effective” price is less than the target price. Counter-cyclical payments, together with marketing assistance loans, vary inversely and unpredictably with market prices (while direct payments will not). Therefore, since no one knows for sure what future prices will be, the total levels and costs of this subsidy could only be guessed.
The result was a subsidy bonanza in farm country, flowing especially to the several hundred thousand largest farms. Transfers in the form of direct payments, marketing loans and countercyclical payments averaged $20 billion per year. Among large commercial growers, who collected the lion’s share of these subsidies, they were hugely popular. The result in 2007 was to raise calls to roll the 2002 legislation over in 2007. In 2005 alone, with pre-tax farm profits at a near record of $72 billion, the U.S. government handed out $25 billion in subsidies—half again as much for no more than half a million farmers as it spent on ten million welfare families receiving cash or food stamps. Unlike these welfare families, the welfare farmers were organized as usual so that the biggest landowners got the biggest payments. Gary Mitchell, a family farmer in Kansas and a former Republican aide to then-Congressman Roberts, described the 2002 policies in these terms: “We’re just sending big checks to big farmers. . . . They’re just living off their welfare checks.”
The Evolution of a Subsidy-Dependent Sector

When U.S. farm programs began in the 1920s and early 1930s, collapsing export and domestic demand were pressing farm gate prices to painfully low levels. With roughly a quarter of the population living on generally diversified farms, a logical action was to prop up the prices of basic commodities that underpinned the food, feed and fiber sectors.

As described in the historical review, supporting prices to achieve social welfare goals eventually led to the accumulation of unwanted surpluses. Storing these excess supplies, enticing land out of production and giving away food aid were all adopted as strategies for sustaining high price supports. In the early 1960s it became clear that this approach to farm policy could only be sustained through mandatory production controls and large surplus disposal programs. But in 1962 wheat farmers rejected mandatory controls, and the Green Revolution in the middle of the decade signaled a lessening dependence on food aid in key recipient nations like India.
Farm policy then began evolving from price support to income support strategies, largely through the combination of lower non-recourse loans and higher “target” prices triggering supplemental income payments. This income support strategy endured through exploding exports in the 1970s, which made the approach appear more successful than it was, largely because exports of grains grew from 1.8 to 5.1 billion bushels, allowing market demand to dominate government subsidies in setting the terms of farm income growth.
The frailties of income support approaches became clearer in the 1980s, when exports fell back to 3.5 billion bushels or less, surplus stocks re-emerged and draconian monetary policies to curb inflation drove agriculture’s borrowing costs through the roof. It became increasingly difficult by the mid-1980s to muster the political will or the budget resources necessary to guarantee all farmers adequate incomes. Moreover, the number of farmers receiving these subsidies continued to shrink, falling to two million or fewer by the 1990s.
By the 1990s, many analysts concluded that only success in the emerging global market for America’s major field crops and the animal agriculture they fed, together with nascent industrial uses such as ethanol, could ensure U.S. agriculture’s financial success. The two major policy initiatives signaling this new outlook were the launching of the Uruguay Round trade negotiations with agricultural trade reform at its heart and a shift in the focus of U.S. farm policy away from income support and toward two goals: (1) better risk management through marketing loans, the phasing out of government supply management tools like annual set asides; (2) a migration away from trade-distorting farm programs to more “decoupled” support programs.
A mixed strategy of partially coupled risk management and partially decoupled income supports rode a recovery in export demand in the first half of the 1990s, including strengthening meat exports and rising industrial uses of corn and oilseeds. But the mixture failed the tests of the latter half of the 1990s. Risk management tools like marketing loans prevented decoupling from working as intended by maintaining production incentives even as market prices called for cutbacks. Neither direct payments nor loan deficiency payments discouraged Congress from topping up benefits through annual emergency bills, as described above. These measures set new high-water marks for farm payments, and deepened the sense of entitlement among the now largely wealthy class of farm subsidy recipients. And although the Uruguay Round Agricultural Agreement, concluded in 1993, achieved a conceptual breakthrough in bringing agricultural protection under the disciplines of the new World Trade Organization, it failed to achieve deep enough cuts in export subsidies, import barriers or domestic supports to shift trade flows along lines of comparative advantage.
The new millennium brought with it many signs of a new age: (1) the Millennium Development goals unified countries around the objective of halving poverty (and hunger) by 2015; (2) the tragedy of 9/11 underlined how hopelessness and radicalism could combine to strike Americans on their own soil; and (3) the launching of the Doha Development Round gave the trade negotiators’ goal of “substantial reductions in protection and support” a new, more compelling rationale – relieving human misery among the half of the world’s population living on less than $2 per day and the sense of desperation to which it was giving rise.
Despite the potential for a new, trade-based era of farm policy, the Doha Round and development promises were belied by the extraordinarily retrograde 2002 Farm Bill. The 2002 Farm Act was out of sequence – pushed ahead a year to reap the largesse of a temporary budget surplus – and out of step with its times. It undermined what little decoupling there was in U.S. farm policy by permitting updating of bases and yields; it continued the marketing loan program, which perpetuated artificial production incentives in an egregiously trade-distorting way, and it introduced a new risk management tool – countercyclical payments – that was perceived by many trading partners as yet another layer of trade-distorting subsidy. And it did all this with bipartisan support, built on the high-water levels of subsidies resulting from the “emergency” payments of the late 1990s.
Meanwhile, as more and more farm subsidy money flowed to fewer and fewer entitled landowners, farm and rural economies continued to change. Consolidation of farms led to a sizable out-migration from farming and a stratification into very different types of farm operations. Perhaps three-fourths of what are called farms in the United States would be better described as rural residences. Those 1.6 to 1.7 million farms have no appreciable farm income and, typically, little in the way of farm program payments. Their incomes come from non-farm sources and, on average, are modestly higher than national average incomes of American families.
Less than one-tenth of U.S. farms – perhaps 150,000-200,000 in number, with annual farm sales above $250,000 – account for about two thirds of all U.S. agriculture output and a similar share of farm program benefits. Their incomes and net worths are, on average, multiples of the averages for all Americans. These large commercial farmers earn those incomes predominantly from their agricultural activities.
The remaining category of U.S. farms is less well off. With farm sales of $50,000 to $250,000, they often are too large and demanding to permit much off-farm income yet too small or inefficient to generate adequate incomes from farming alone. These “in-betweeners” also have average incomes that lag those of average Americans, but their eligibility for farm program payments is modest, based on their land and production bases, and therefore inadequate to support them in the style of their larger commercial counterparts.
Rural America also went through a major transformation in this period. While the rural population’s share of America’s total population remained relatively stable at just over one-fifth, its occupational and geographical make-up changed significantly. For example, farm jobs fell from 12.4 percent of non-metro jobs in 1976 to 6.2 percent by 2004. The manufacturing sector employed nearly twice as many non-metro workers in 2004 as the farm sector. The real employment growth engine in rural America – as in metropolitan areas – became services, especially related to retirement and recreation.
In short, rural America has long lost its dependency on the farm economy, but the farm economy has increased its dependency on transfers from the taxpayer including, ironically, the vast majority of rural residents who receive no farm subsidy support at all. On average, rural incomes now lag well behind urban ones, and the gap has widened from 20 percent less than urban earnings in the late1970s to one-third less by 2004. Even adjusting for the lower living costs characteristic of rural areas, this is a significant and growing gap in well-being. At the same time, large commercial farms’ income and assets are now well above national averages.

Looking Forward
Support Rural America and End Subsidies for the Entitled Farm Few
As Congress reauthorizes agricultural legislation in 2007-2008, it must ask itself whether it can continue to justify policies for the one-fifth of comparatively poor Americans in rural areas (roughly 60 million people) that continue to be based on huge subsidies to a comparatively rich class of no more than 200,000 farmers. In ways even more stark than the contrast between the salaries and benefits of workers and management, the divide between the commercial farming haves and the non-farm rural have-nots now defines the American countryside.
Despite this glaring disparity, breaking through the politics and economics of entitlement among large commercial growers will not be easy. It is they, and not the millions of rural poor and underemployed, who have the ear of Congress, based on their ability to contribute money and wield political influence.
Even so, there are at least half a dozen elements coming together that could signal a shift in U.S. farm policy:

  1. “Partial decoupling:” the current mix of trade-distorting and non-trade distorting farm programs doesn’t work well.

  1. Mounting U.S. budget deficits signal a significant and likely progressive decline in the availability of public resources to fund farm programs.

  1. WTO litigation – especially the Brazilian case against U.S. cotton programs – has revealed how large agricultural exporting countries like the United States are vulnerable to challenge under existing multilateral trade rules.

  1. Doha Round negotiations cannot succeed without substantial agricultural reforms, and U.S. agricultural interests cannot achieve their market access goals without substantial reductions in trade-distorting U.S. farm programs.

  1. Equity considerations are emerging as a larger part of the public debate about U.S. farm policy as greater information transparency has highlighted the degree to which large producers – with incomes and net worths typically well above the average American’s – capture the lion’s share of farm program benefits under the existing structure of those programs.

  1. Competing interests are emerging as potential claimants on the public resource base available to farmers; among those interests are people seeking: larger public investments in measures to enhance agricultural productivity and global competitiveness; greater spending on environmental protection and sustainability; greater public support for rural development.

Traditionally, farm bills have been written in the agriculture committees of the two houses of Congress. Those committees typically pay attention to the first two of these forces – how well the farm programs are working and how to maximize agriculture’s share of the budget pie. No doubt, those remain their primary concerns as the 2007 farm act is getting put together.

But these other concerns – conforming with WTO rules, capturing the potential of the Doha Round, addressing equity considerations and dealing with new and conflicting interests—are more visible and forceful than in past farm bill debates. Either the agriculture committees must find ways to weigh these concerns seriously, which likely means breaking the current mold for farm programs, or they may face a credible, serious challenge on the floor of one or both houses.

A New Farm Policy Strategy

A new farm policy strategy must begin by recognizing that “fine tuning” existing programs is not viable; it spells a decline in the relevance and value of agricultural policy, both to farming in particular and to the rural economy more generally. That new farm policy strategy also must accept a fundamental truth about today’s farm economy: no single policy tool is adequate for the complexity of American agriculture or its global setting. This is the central lesson of the historical evolution of U.S. farm programs: it is not just that price supports, income enhancement or risk management eventually became outmoded; it is that multiple goals require multiple policy tools, each appropriate to its constituents and their needs.

How can U.S. farm policy, then, evolve to reflect the changing face of agriculture and rural America while addressing more effectively these six major challenges? That evolution needs to be guided by some general principles that command broad understanding and support. Here are three such principles:

  1. A transition to public spending on public goods. Tax dollars should be invested in public goods that benefit many rather than channeled into private benefits that are collected by a few.

  1. Private benefits delivered privately. As public spending shifts from private to public goods, a transitional strategy is needed to help build private delivery systems that have been discouraged by public sector dominance.

  1. Make rural areas better places to live and work. Public spending should strengthen agriculture’s competitiveness, narrow rural-urban income gaps and improve rural social services.

The three principles, properly applied, can yield a policy that supports the development of a healthy, freestanding U.S. agricultural economy. They can do so while shifting scarce public resources into public goods that make rural areas better places to live and work for all rural dwellers. And, they can position the United States to lead the WTO to an ambitious outcome for the Doha Development Round, achieving the Millennium Development goals by harnessing commerce to their attainment.

The policy approach that would flow from these three principles would contain the following core elements:

  1. Investments to enhance agricultural productivity and global competitiveness.

  1. A transition to private risk management tools for those farmers dependent on commercial success.

  1. Investments that make rural areas better places to live and work for the three-fourths of “farmers” who are basically rural dwellers, and for their neighbors.

  1. Effective adjustment assistance programs for farmers struggling to reach commercial scale or needing to move to non-farm employment.

  1. A sound, sustainable environmental and natural resource base compatible with a productive rural economy.

Discussion of Policy Tools
Productivity and competitiveness. The key to U.S. agriculture’s long-term viability is continued productivity growth and enhanced global competitiveness. Over the last several decades, public investments in agricultural research have declined in real terms and shifted from increased factor productivity to areas like conservation, new uses and quality attributes. As a result, there are growing indications that U.S. agriculture’s productivity is declining. This trend needs to be reversed through expanded public investments in productivity growth.
Similarly, the infrastructure that underpins U.S. agriculture’s competitiveness – including rural roads and bridges, rural communications (especially high speed internet) and the inland waterways system – all have suffered from neglect. Railroad capacity and service also have deteriorated as a result of railroads paring back to achieve sustainable profitability while demand for these more limited services has been increasing from competing shippers of both bulk commodities and piggyback cargoes. These trends need to be reversed, including both direct public investments and public incentives to expand investment in critical infrastructure services to rural areas.
Private risk management tools. As farm policy evolved from price support objectives through income support to risk management assistance, farm consolidation restructured U.S. agriculture dramatically. According to Economic Research Service (ERS) data, about 150,000 farms (those with sales above $250,000 per year) constitute roughly 7 percent of farms but account for about 70 percent of U.S. agricultural production and farm program benefits. They probably also captured the lion’s share of U.S. agriculture’s $1.6 trillion balance sheet and the 31 percent increase in farm equity since 2003. Their average incomes are roughly three times those of the typical American household, and their net worths are many times those of the average American.
In short, large commercial farmers do not need nor deserve to capture benefit streams initially designed for social welfare purposes. They do, however, need access to sound risk management tools and services, privately funded and delivered. A robust private risk management market would develop, if public actions did not undercut it through existing commodity programs, subsidized crop insurance and “emergency” farm payments. Nor is a revenue insurance program the answer, since it cannot be effectively tuned to individual producer needs and the variety and complexity of risk management challenges facing commercial farmers.
A better answer would be “allowances” that would enable commercial farmers to select and purchase the services that fit their operations, financial conditions and plans. The scale of such allowances would decline progressively to zero over the five-year life of the Act, but this should provide an adequate incentive for private sector innovation and experimentation to develop actuarially sound, targeted and efficient risk management tools for commercial farmers.
Rural development. According to ERS data, there are 1.2 million “farms” with sales below $10,000 per year. Per farm program payments to this group are small, and only about one-fifth receive any payments. There are another 400,000 “farms” with gross sales between $10,000 and $50,000. Only half of these farms receive program payments, which also are quite modest per farm. Together, this 1.6-1.7 million “farms” are really rural residences, not commercial farming operations. Their average annual incomes also exceed the household average for all Americans, with that income coming predominantly to exclusively from non-farm sources. Program payments are of marginal value.
What would be of value are public investments in public goods to make their rural communities better places to live and work. By replacing farm programs with block grants to states or regional planning groups, these communities would gain access to additional resources to strengthen their vitality while retaining the power to decide the best use of such funds. It would be a much better mix of local planning and shared public support than scattering small payments in a helter-skelter fashion in hopes that they would percolate into local community growth and development.
Adjustment assistance. Between rural residences and commercial farmers lies a group of “intermediate” farms, with sales between $50,000 and $250,000 per year. They account for about 300,000 farms (about one-sixth of the total) and are the only class where aggregate average incomes trail the national average for American households. Often, these farms are too demanding to permit much off-farm income but too small to support an adequate income from farming. But farm program payments are unlikely to solve these economic challenges for the individuals involved; more often than not they perpetuate rather than relieve inadequate living standards.
A better approach would be to offer adjustment planning and assistance to these families, either to grow to commercial scale or to find alternative opportunities. The former would involve financial planning services, some temporary or bridge financing and access to the allowance-based risk management initiatives proposed for larger commercial farmers. The latter could best be helped by tuition grants for up to four years of post-secondary education for members of the family to make a needed transition to alternative employment.
Environmental stewardship. To date, environmental protection under farm programs has largely relied on a farm-by-farm approach. Conservation reserve acreage, water management activities and nascent conservation practices on productive lands all have relied on per farm implementation. The result is a checkerboard of environmental compliance and enhancement activities.
A regionalized approach would be more effective for advancing public interests in protecting waterways, balancing conservation lands with productive lands and enhancing landscape and natural resource values. Some of the savings from eliminating commodity programs would be used to finance this regionalized strategy for resource planning and preservation.


The farm policy strategy outlined here, by eliminating commodity programs and phasing out public payments to private beneficiaries while recoupling those savings to public investments in public goods benefiting rural areas, in one sense represents a significant departure from past policy. In another sense, however, it is a logical progression from the evolution of farm programs over their 75 year history, given the consolidation, specialization, globalization and complexity that confront modern American agriculture. It adheres to core principles that command broad agreement, and it will leave both American agriculture and rural America healthier and better able to stand on their own.

1 This material draws in part on Chapter 3 of the 1992 book by Willard W. Cochrane and C. Ford Runge, Reforming Farm Policy: Toward a National Agenda.” Iowa State University Press.

2 Base acres refer to the number of acres enrolled with the USDA, eligible for payments for growing a particular commodity, such as corn or wheat. In recent years this base has been a moving average of previous years’ plantings. This number is an accounting unit, not a specific acre of land on a farm.

3 Nonrecourse loan refers to the mechanism that USDA uses to provide cash advances to farmers, which may then be repaid either in cash (at subsidized rates of interest) or in-kind, by surrendering the crop to the government in lieu of the loan itself. Because the government has no recourse to the loan principal, it is designated a “nonrecourse” loan. This mechanism accounts for a large share of the surplus commodities acquired by the government in times of low commodities prices.

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