This article appears in the June 2023 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
A classic premise in American cinema is the buddy comedy, epitomized by films like Tommy Boy or Midnight Run. Two characters who can’t stand each other are thrown together by circumstance, forced to make a screwball pilgrimage across the country to finish a job. Hilarity ensues.
This same storyline infects our politics every five years when the farm bill comes up for reauthorization. Two parties at the brink of civil war are pressured to cooperate in order to deliver for their respective constituents. Congress’s version of this tumultuous road trip runs through both rural and urban America, uniting liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. But the ultimate winner of this madcap romp is one of the country’s most infamous heels: Big Agriculture.
Despite its title, the farm bill, which is due for reauthorization this September, impacts more than just farmers. Over 80 percent of the allocated funds supports the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, one of the largest welfare programs and arguably the United States’ closest imitation of a Scandinavian social safety net. The fate of SNAP’s 42 million impoverished recipients is shackled to a baroque patchwork of agriculture subsidies that could rival any late-Soviet central-planning efforts.
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The real function of the modern farm bill is to deliver windfalls to industry by subsidizing cheap commodity grains, mostly corn and soybeans used for animal feed, that sell below the cost of production to agribusiness, fast-food chains, and global exports. Oil and gas companies are also major beneficiaries of subsidized corn production, used in ethanol and biofuel. And the structure of the subsidies tilts the playing field in favor of the biggest factory farms and middlemen monopolists.
Low commodity prices drive down incomes for family farmers who actually put in the labor to produce the nation’s food. The government steps in to keep farmers on just enough life support so that they can continue serving their overlords in agribusiness. Subsidy payments are primarily available for grain commodities like corn, soybeans, and wheat, which drives farmers toward a monocrop culture. Those who raise animals for meat products, though, don’t get covered by the payments, and instead are left to fend for themselves against dominant middlemen.
This economic arrangement, which many of today’s farmers call a new form of serfdom, not only devastates farmers but incentivizes a food system that is causing rising obesity rates, limited access to fresh foods in inner-city areas, and nearly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions globally.
“There’s just no intention or goal anymore … we essentially do ag policy like it’s one large casino run by agribusiness, giving farmers just enough chips so they can play and keep betting but never win,” said Ferd Hoefner, a policy consultant who’s worked and advised lawmakers on farm bills since the 1970s.
Liberal Democrats may be hesitant about lavishing subsidies on powerful corporations, but their main priority is to make sure poor people can afford food. Conservative Republicans have often fulminated against so-called welfare queens, but they want to keep farm interests happy. And so a corrupt bargain is struck every half-decade, where neither side does much to really challenge the other’s prized possession. The bundling of rural and urban interests ensures the farm bill’s passage, but it comes at a steep cost: a status quo bill full of endless logrolling and backroom deals, which stacks the deck against family farmers.
The bundling of rural and urban interests ensures the farm bill’s passage, but it stacks the deck against family farmers.
This leaves only a narrow window for progress. A reform movement, composed of independent farmers and ranchers, environmental advocates, and anti-monopolists from both parties, may be more organized than it’s been since the 1980s farm crisis. But it will square up against the might of Big Ag, which spends more on lobbying in Washington than the defense industry. Ag lobbyists are so enmeshed in congressional dealings that in 2014 one of the largest trade groups, the North American Meat Association, held a barbecue with House Agriculture Committee lawmakers inside the very hearing room where the lobbyists’ clients testified the next day.
“David and Goliath might not fully capture what we’re up against,” said Rhonda Perry, the executive director at the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and a founder of the historic Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, who has experienced the coercive industry efforts firsthand.
Farm policy in America has become such an empty ritual that members of Congress have yet to fully reckon with the damage the bill is inflicting on what’s left of farm country, not to mention the public health of the citizenry. Step one in undoing the myopic farm bill consensus lies in telling the story of how a radical New Deal program became an appendage of industrial agriculture.
IN RURAL POCKETS OF THE COUNTRY, the ongoing crisis in farming today has echoes of the poverty during the Great Depression, when agriculture markets collapsed and farmers couldn’t find enough demand for the crops they’d harvested the previous year. On the brink of ruin and without government support, farmers held mass protests that were so widespread that government officials worried it would turn into outright rebellion if action wasn’t taken. (That wouldn’t be an incident without precedent in American history: President Washington had to send in federal troops to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, whipped up by farmers and distillers in opposition to alcohol taxes.)
Agriculture has always required a greater degree of government involvement because of the unconventional nature of the market, prone to periodic booms and busts, weather disasters, price swings, and fluctuations in supply and demand. Unlike a widget factory, production cannot just be quickly ramped up and down to respond to market conditions, which exposes farmers to volatility. As the Depression raged, policymakers finally recognized this core need for government regulation and oversight.
Soon after FDR took office, Congress passed the first radical intervention into agricultural markets. The 1933 farm bill set up the parity system, guaranteeing farmers a base level of income when market prices dropped below the cost of production. It also set up a supply management system to balance supply and demand for most commodity goods, by establishing government-held reserves and paying farmers to keep surplus crops off the market, in the hopes of stabilizing prices.
The drastic measures largely succeeded, boosting farmer net income from $2.285 billion in 1932 to $7.723 billion by 1941. However, farming didn’t fully stabilize until World War II, when exports soared as the U.S. became the food provider for allied nations. This geopolitical chip would define the postwar era of food policy and trade.
Roosevelt also signed the first food stamp program, both to feed the hungry and bump demand for surplus crops in the market. Structured as an emergency program, it eventually phased out, but would re-emerge as a political fight during the 1960s.
Agribusiness and corporate leaders abhorred the parity system from the beginning, decrying it as “socialism.” Government production controls, for example, made it harder for would-be monopolists to dislodge farmers who were granted more personal security, and also limited the amount of fertilizers that farmers needed to purchase from agrochemical corporations. But the continual reauthorization of the farm bill every five years gave corporate forces the ability to refashion it as a vehicle for mass industrial production.
The locus for this revolt was the Committee for Economic Development, a research organization that became the policy engine for turning the political class against New Deal policies. With ties to the Chamber of Commerce and the American Bankers Association, the CED explicitly advocated for liquidating family farmers from the commercial landscape, to make way for industrialized mega-farms that could produce cheaper goods at scale. They christened their plan “the farm problem,” which they went about executing with such methodical precision that it would put a smile on the face of any dekulakization proponent from across the Iron Curtain.
Just as the Chicago school revolution began dismantling antitrust laws, the CED’s influence also came to a head during the 1970s. Nixon’s secretary of agriculture Earl Butz famously declared that farmers would have to “get big or get out,” urging them to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” a monoculture farming model that favors large single-crop operations over diversified family farms. Monoculture farming entails far greater use of nitrogen fertilizer to boost yields and counteract rapid soil erosion—a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions by releasing carbon from the soil.
The “get big or get out” era became the defining doctrine of U.S. ag policy for decades to come. Agribusiness succeeded at using farm bills to chip away at the supply management system. The parity payments were stripped of any requirements for conservation land set-asides, acreage restrictions, or other production controls. Payments to farmers were triggered by target prices when the market price for select commodity crops dropped below a certain level set by Congress.
This set up a vicious boom-and-bust cycle. Overproduction led to lower commodity prices and farm incomes, which in turn required greater taxpayer assistance to make up the difference. Between 1950 and 1990, over two million farmers were pushed out of the industry. But the changes lowered costs for agribusiness, and allowed them to dominate.
In the 1980s, farm markets crashed under the weight of this burden, a Soviet grain embargo, and the interest rate spike engineered by Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker to fight inflation. Farm debt exploded, and income dropped from $92.1 billion in 1973 to just $8.2 billion a decade later. Exits, bankruptcies, and foreclosures spiked, which culminated in a greater consolidation of land by corporations and financiers.
Amid relative neglect from President Reagan, a reform effort known as Farm Aid (marked by a concert featuring Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Neil Young) sprung up during the 1985 farm bill, not only to raise money for family farms but to try to reverse course on the corporate takeover of farming. It succeeded in pressuring Congress to pass several conservation programs, but was largely unsuccessful in reviving a new supply management system, as it had hoped.
The 1996 farm bill, signed by President Bill Clinton, completed the full deregulation of the agricultural system that farmers face today. The Freedom to Farm Act (known as “Freedom to Fail” by farmers) entirely dismantled the remaining price parity and supply management controls, promising that the magic of the free market would fix farming. Prices crashed by as much as 32 percent in the next two years as overproduction surged, and the government had to intervene to institute direct payments just to keep farmers afloat.
“The Freedom to Farm Act was a massive giveaway to the rising giants in agriculture we know today,” said Patty Lovera, the policy director for the Organic Farmers Association and a longtime advocate for family farmers.
By revoking supply management, government subsidies to farmers have grown exponentially. A University of Tennessee/National Farmers Union study found that supply management would have saved taxpayers $96 billion between 1998 and 2010, while keeping food prices more stable for consumers.
While farmers struggled, Freedom to Farm delivered the greatest gift the rising meatpacker monopolists could have asked for. It dropped the cost of animal feed below the cost of production, allowing Tyson, for example, to scale up its operations and capture a dominant position in chicken processing. The company saved nearly $300 million per year on chicken feed in the decade after the 1996 farm bill. These savings were not passed on to consumers as promised, with meat processors—who also owned many of the mega-farms—cross-subsidizing their own operations.
Democrats expend their political capital to protect SNAP, and cede most decision-making about agricultural programs to Republicans.
The 1990s saw another transformation. Trade agreements like NAFTA and the WTO required that member nations not directly subsidize their own national producers’ goods to artificially lower prices and prevent global competition. This posed a challenge to congressional farm supports, but their work-around ultimately delivered another boon to Big Ag. The U.S. decoupled farmer payments from production to avoid WTO penalties, and shifted its model to base acreage. It wasn’t about how many bushels of corn a farmer produced, but instead how large the farming operation was. This further incentivized factory farming operations and the buy-up of land to qualify for larger subsidies.
Base acreage still defines farm bill subsidies, even after the 2014 bill ended direct payments and shifted the entire structure to a crop insurance model. Now, the government pays for private insurance premiums on up to 85 percent of a farm’s acreage, costing billions of dollars. Only the major commodity crops—mainly corn, wheat, and soybeans—can access these funds, and not so-called specialty crops like fruits and vegetables.
THE SHIFT IN FARM BILL POLICY set the stage for the monopolization of agriculture. Decades of lax antitrust enforcement led to a merger boom and an industry rollup, which has turned the market from an open to a closed one, dominated by powerful middlemen on both the buyer and supplier side. Farm bill policy also played a role by rewarding larger operations and subsidizing cheap commodity grains, which are as vital to industrial agriculture as semiconductor chips are to the tech economy. As monopolies grew in size, they wielded their market power and lobbying dollars to turn the farm bill into a corporate handout.
At harvest time, most grain farmers today are forced to sell to just four processing firms that make up 90 percent of grain trading. Much of that grain ends up as feed for livestock. Hog, chicken, and beef farmers are either under contract by just four meatpackers—Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS SA, and National Beef Packing—or independently forced to sell to them as the only buyers. Recent mergers between Dow and DuPont, as well as Bayer and Monsanto, have narrowed the Big Six seed and agrochemical manufacturers to just four. The top four producers of nitrogen fertilizer rake in two-thirds of all sales.
This cabal of Big Ag monopolies squeezes farmers for all they’re worth, controlling every aspect of production, shortchanging them on the fruits of their labor and ratcheting up costs for necessary inputs like equipment, seeds, and fertilizers. Farmers pay three times higher on inputs today than in the 1990s.
Small- and even medium-sized farming has become a losing enterprise. Incomes continue to plummet, forcing many to supplement annual crop sales with off-farm work just to make ends meet. For most of the past decade, the majority of farm households in the U.S. have lost more money than they made from farming. Debt, bankruptcies, and even suicide rates are rising, and regional rural economies that depend on agriculture to support grocery stores, schools, and hospitals are verging on collapse.
These financial conditions push farmers to exit the business entirely. More often than not, their land gets flipped into concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which pack thousands of animals into cramped facilities to produce at the scale demanded by the meatpackers. While CAFOs are convenient for Big Ag, they’re detrimental to animal health and lead to environmental damages from the feces pooling into toxic manure lagoons.
“Both by design and corporate hijacking, government policies have turned our farmlands into a paradise for big business and a wasteland for the rest of us,” said Rebecca Wolf, a policy analyst at Food and Water Watch.
Democrats and Republicans, with rare exceptions, have gone along with the corporate annexation of the farm bill because of an agreement brokered in the 1960s. The deal broadened the stakeholders for the bill and increased the degree of difficulty for anyone wanting to break the special-interest obstacles to a more fair and humane farm policy.
While the highest-profile conflicts over the bill today fall along partisan lines, feuds between regional coalitions historically played a greater role. In the 1960s, Midwestern corn, wheat, and soybean interests clashed with the South’s coalition for cotton, a domestic good waning in power due to global competition. Southern Democrats controlled the Agriculture Committee in both the House and Senate, and dutifully doled out subsidies to fit their own agricultural needs.
In 1964, farm bill negotiations reached an impasse, with the cotton coalition unable to find enough partners for passage. Desperate Southern Democrats turned to the urban legislators who caucused with them. Since the expiration of FDR’s emergency food benefits in the 1940s, advocates for low-income communities and their representatives in the inner cities had fought to restore the food stamp program. Southern Democrats, who opposed handouts to the racially coded underclass in the cities, blocked them time and again. It was a familiar dynamic dating back to the original farm bill, when segregationist Democrats ensured that Black sharecroppers wouldn’t be able to receive parity payments, despite bearing the brunt of the acreage restrictions imposed on farmers to slash production.
Food stamp legislation all but certainly had enough support to pass on a floor vote if the Ag Committee would have allowed it; President Johnson was even able to get a pilot “surplus commodities” program instituted administratively in 1962. Finally, to save the farm bill, the Southerners struck an agreement to build on the surplus commodities demonstration and include food stamps in the package. This arrangement was permanently enshrined in the 1977 farm bill.
“That historical contingency forever changed the politics of the farm and thus the direction of our country’s ag policy,” said Jonathan Coppess, the author of The Fault Lines of Farm Policy and the former administrator of the Farm Service Agency at the Department of Agriculture under President Barack Obama.
Republicans dominate rural America today, and Democrats the urban core. This polarization set up a recurrent political dynamic, which began after Republicans took the House in 1994. Republicans wage war on the poor by threatening cuts to SNAP in order to gain political leverage, even though rural areas are increasingly signing up for SNAP as poverty rises. This allows the GOP to extract as many pounds of flesh as they can for their Big Ag benefactors. In recent years, that’s meant loopholes for a cap on payments that a single farm can receive and also allowing the extended family of farmers to acquire subsidies even if they don’t actually work on the farm.
For their part, Democrats expend their political capital to protect SNAP, and cede most decision-making about agricultural programs to Republicans. To the extent that Democrats push for changes to the agriculture titles, they often broker compromises to expand programs that suit the parochial interests of the states they represent. For example, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the current Democratic chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, championed the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) in the 2018 farm bill, which delivers grants to help farmers markets.
“It’s a lot like a hostage negotiation between both parties to jam their priorities through,” said policy adviser Ferd Hoefner.
By the end of the bipartisan back-scratching, hardly any lawmakers understand the full scope of the bill they’re voting for. Usually checking in at nearly 1,000 pages, the legislative boondoggle is so long and convoluted that you’d have better odds finding lawmakers who’d read the entirety of a Thomas Pynchon novel than the full text.
Most of the programs Republicans fight for in the farm bill would not be able to pass in their current form on a straight floor vote. SNAP, on the other hand, carries much higher popularity among voters in polling. The welfare side of the bill is what makes the package politically possible. But the ag subsidies are what keeps rural America in a perpetual state of crisis.
THE USUAL BUDDY COMEDY that is the farm bill unites liberals and conservatives to protect the basic framework of the program. This year, however, the script may be flipping.
The defining odd couple is shaping up to be Cory Booker, the cheery New Jersey senator prone to impassioned, long-winded speeches about hope and the power of love, and Republican Chuck Grassley, the octogenarian curmudgeon of the Senate better known for his so-bad-they’re-good tweets than his long-held enmity against the meatpackers. Despite their ideological differences, they are working in concert with a chorus of anti-monopoly and conservation advocates in trying to subvert the usual dynamic and redirect the course of U.S. agriculture policy to suit the needs of independent farmers rather than Big Ag.
Though Grassley is a mostly down-the-line conservative from Iowa corn country—a major driver of farm bill subsidies—he has been an outspoken adversary to ag consolidation for decades, often diverging from Republican leadership. During his six terms, he consistently championed legislation that would curb the meatpackers’ power to throttle independent cattle ranchers.
This year, he’s pushing for changes alongside Sen. Booker, who is just as quixotically determined to curb concentration in agriculture. Despite being nicknamed the Garden State, New Jersey does not carry a particularly large agricultural economy, representing only 1.3 percent of state GDP. But Booker, as the Senate’s resident vegan, has the perfect credentials to wage a personal crusade against animal cruelty at factory farms.
Dating back to his time as mayor of Newark, Booker has also fought against food deserts, a scourge afflicting urban areas across the country without access to grocery stores carrying fresh foods like fruits and vegetables.
It wasn’t until a meeting Booker took in 2018 with the former Democratic lieutenant governor of Missouri, Joe Maxwell, that he made the connection between limited inner-city access to grocery stores and the monopoly crisis that farmers face in the heartland.
“He had a strong foundation of knowledge about concentrated power in retail, so I just had to add some limbs on the tree and get the wind going in another direction to show him that the same power is impacting family farmers too,” said Maxwell, a soft-spoken fourth-generation hog farmer who speaks more with a preacher’s charm than a politician’s salesmanship.
In addition to competition policy, there’s a major push this year to make the farm bill resemble something more like a climate bill.
After their meeting, Maxwell invited Booker to visit his home state on a kind of disaster tourism trip through rural America. The two traveled together from the Bootheel and up along the Mississippi River through Southern Illinois. Along the route, they spoke with a broad cross section of independent farmers, from cattle ranchers to medium-sized corn and soybean growers, who bear the scars of decades of failed farm bill policies that greased the skids for corporate concentration.
The trip made a lasting impression on Booker, who returned to Washington and began evangelizing for breaking up Big Ag and other market reforms. Though some suspected that Booker staked out the issue as a 2020 presidential play for the Iowa caucuses, he has continued to champion the cause even after his campaign ended. Many of the competition policy initiatives both Booker and Grassley are aiming to include in this year’s farm bill tie back one way or another to the New Jersey senator’s caravan through Missouri with Maxwell.
Reflecting back on the trip today, Maxwell noted that to any outside observer, it would be a strange sight to behold: a Democratic senator who grew up just outside Newark sitting on hay bales across from farmers who mostly vote Republican, despite feeling that the party’s leadership class sold them out to industry.
At a farm bill conference earlier this year, hosted by Maxwell’s organization Farm Action, Sen. Booker delivered the keynote address, detailing his takeaway from the trip: “I heard wrenching stories from farmers who had deeds on their walls from the Homestead Act but now after generations have to sell the farms … because our food system is broken.”
THIS YEAR, INDUSTRY GROUPS are strong-arming legislators to revert back to the direct emergency payment structure phased out in the 2014 farm bill. This would supplement the existing commodity-favored crop insurance model that the government has in place. In addition to crop insurance, commodity farmers also get subsidized coverage, known as Price Loss Coverage, that pays back for lost revenues in the case of market slumps, which happens frequently. With the help of Republicans, interest groups representing mega-farms are working to get a higher reference point for insurance coverage in order to guarantee larger payouts to farmers.
In addition, the Republican majority in the House will surely push for more strenuous work requirements on the SNAP program, which could leave over 700,000 current recipients ineligible, according to the Food Research and Action Center. The House GOP already included SNAP work requirements in their wish-list bill to extend the debt limit in April.
The cross-partisan pressures that make up the farm bill leave little room for the Grassley-Booker coalition to gain a foothold. For years, the graveyard for amendments has always been the conference committee, after the House and Senate pass their versions and the logrolling takes place behind closed doors to decide what will be included in the final bill. Legislation to curb Big Ag concentration or cap subsidy payments historically gets left on the cutting-room floor.
In 2002, it took near-herculean efforts for Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, one of the last populist Democrats from a rural state at the time, to get a vote on a bill that would have banned meatpackers from owning their own livestock. The bill passed handily on the floor with bipartisan support, but was stripped from the final bill in conference committee.
Another amendment that successfully passed in the 2008 farm bill directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update the Packers and Stockyards Act, a major piece of antitrust legislation that grants the USDA authority to prohibit unfair and deceptive practices by meatpackers but has gone unenforced for years. Under massive pressure from Big Ag, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack dragged his feet on following Congress’s mandate. Then, Republicans passed riders in subsequent bills that neutered the amendment entirely. Vilsack, now agriculture secretary again under President Biden, is still trying to complete Packers and Stockyards rules.
This year’s coalition of family farm advocates and environmentalists aren’t under any illusions about the challenges ahead. But so far, many of their key proposals are picking up traction with members of both parties, spearheaded by Booker and Grassley.
“Our forces are stronger together when we can get support from across the aisle,” said Adam Zipkin, who serves as counsel to Sen. Booker on food and agriculture policy.
The odd-couple senators are each supporting a collection of complementary competition titles to deconcentrate agriculture and promote an open market for independent farmers to sell into. Both senators are proposing a rule that would force meatpackers to purchase at least 50 percent of their animals in the open spot market instead of through contract, which would give independent ranchers a chance to compete. The measure is also supported by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), a self-described “dirt farmer” and a frequent partner with Booker on the Democratic side. Booker has also called for placing a moratorium on CAFOs.
“We [anti-monopolists] used to be greeted on the Hill like we were wearing tinfoil hats for saying we had a consolidation problem, and now everyone is like ‘of course we do,’” said Lovera, who’s worked on farm bills since the early 2000s.
The USDA’s checkoff program is also in the crosshairs of reformers. The program effectively acts as a government-run slush fund, bankrolled by a tax on all farmers, that agribusiness can tap for both industry marketing and lobbying. In essence, small farmers pay for Big Ag to destroy them. Booker introduced a bill earlier this year that would prohibit checkoff dollars going to any lobbying organization. Another primary concern for the farm bill is to reinstate country-of-origin labels, a long-sought priority for independent farmers to distinguish their goods from large meatpackers’ foreign sourcing of products.
In addition to competition policy, there’s a major push this year to make the farm bill resemble something more like a climate bill, in order to fulfill President Biden and Secretary Vilsack’s pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental groups and family farm advocates are aligning their priorities to deliver more funding to practices like rotational grazing and crop-covering, rather than using those dollars to retrofit the mega-farms driving the highest emissions.
“In its current form, many conservation programs at the USDA aren’t accessible to small farmers, whose applications get denied at higher rates but could help cover the costs of sustainable farming,” said Antonio Tovar, senior policy associate at the National Family Farm Coalition.
Much of the current funding for climate-related farm bill policies has turned into a money pit for factory farms. A good example of how this works is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), one of the largest USDA conservation funds.
A provision in the 2002 farm bill, written by lobbyists, required that over a third of the EQIP funds used in Iowa go to livestock operations, which are dominated by factory farm CAFOs. As the Environmental Working Group has documented, over a third of EQIP funds, totaling around $62 million, finance animal waste cleanups and containment at corporate farms, like manure lagoons and toxic runoffs. Taxpayer dollars help backstop rather than penalize environmental harms by factory farms, when those funds could instead support family farms using sustainable practices that keep carbon in the soil. Booker and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) plan to fight for an amendment in the farm bill that would amend the livestock requirement and direct funding to small farmers.
The Inflation Reduction Act also included a pot of almost $20 billion for climate-smart agriculture at the USDA. It didn’t include an EQIP livestock requirement, which was seen as a victory for progressive advocates. They are now pushing to protect that IRA funding, which faces opposition from Republican lawmakers, in the farm bill.
Along with distributing access to conservation funding, Maxwell’s group Farm Action is leading the charge to restructure the bill’s prioritization of payments to fencerow commodity crop production, which promotes monoculture. The core subsidy payments exclude specialty crops like fruits and vegetables, and also dissuade diversified crop farming, which is primarily used by small family farms. Diversified farming is shown to be far better for soil health and doesn’t require the same amount of nitrogen fertilizers and other agrochemicals to replenish eroded soil.
Several members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have spoken favorably about incentivizing specialty crop farming, including Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), who grew up on a family farm in Iowa.
“The fact that only 4 percent of the subsidies go to fruits and vegetables is not because politicians don’t know that fruits and vegetables are good for you … it’s the corporatization of agriculture,” said Rep. Porter in an interview with the Prospect.
Another conversation among lawmakers on the Hill is to cut down on wasteful farm payments. Mega-farms collect the largest subsidies because of the base acreage model instituted after the WTO agreements. However, merely revoking subsidies across the board would harm medium-sized and small farms, which rely on government payments more than ever because agriculture markets are fundamentally broken. A bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Grassley would shift to a subsidy model that caps payments for wealthy mega-farms, to ensure the bulk of the program goes to farmers who actually need government assistance.
These reform efforts are ambitious. It will likely take more than one farm bill in order to turn around years of failed policies. Joe Maxwell’s Farm Action has laid out a decade-long strategy to accomplish reform goals. It begins with getting lawmakers to understand what exactly the stakes are in the legislation, how it works, and how to fix it. In other words, it begins with breaking the bargain at the heart of the farm bill, which has led to a corporatized, consolidated agriculture policy.
“It’s not just about one farm bill, our coalition’s goal is to shift the entire conversation in Congress for years to come to make the family farm the center of our government’s policies, not industry,” said Maxwell.