The involvement of the government in the agriculture industry has changed throughout the history of the country. The influences that affect how the government gets involved have also changed over the years. Because of the ever-changing dynamic of the world economy and trends in what type of products are in demand. How the government involves itself with the agriculture industry will most likely continue to change. A recent surge in the importance of environmental conservation is also playing a large role in government involvement. Because the farmer is essential to the survival of the human race, it is also most likely that the government will always be involved in some form or another.
During the 19th century, the U.S. was a developing country and most the population still lived and worked on farms. It was the government’s intentions to expand the borders of the country and the production of agriculture. When the Louisiana purchase was completed, it did just that. Allow for the expansion of the country and help expand the agrarian economy. During these years, the government wished to be an asset to the farmers by working indirectly. The government helped the farmer by creating infrastructure by which the farmers could better transport their products. These infrastructure projects included canals, roads, and later in time railroads. During the mid to late part of the century, the government created the Homestead Act which greatly increased the production of agriculture throughout the country. This expansion of agriculture ended at the start of the next century. In some shape or form, the government is always improving the transportation of goods by creating, maintaining roads, and having regulations to prevent monopolies on transportation costs.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the country changed courses. The land expansion had finally ended and immigrants came to the country in large amounts. It was after this that the so-called “golden years”1 of agriculture bloomed and flourished for a short time. After World War One, during the roaring twenties, the country had large amounts of surplus that it did not trade. This helped perpetuate the Great Depression, then the Dust Bowl came. The combination of these two issues changed how the government would involve itself in the industry. The government intervened directly with the farmer by putting limits on crops or in other words, started making production decisions for the farmer. The government began to make direct payments to farmers based on prices of agriculture commodities during the “golden years” of agriculture.2 Tariffs were placed on imports to help bolster up the prices of domestically produced goods. This new style of intervention created a “safer” environment for farmers.3
In the latter part of the 20th century, the government started to reexamine the way it intervened in the industry. Global trade was on the rise and our farmers were at a point where they could not compete on a global scale because of the heavy-handed intervention by the government. In the most recent farm bill, many or most of the direct payments were excluded, thus helping farmers continue to compete in the world market. Of course, these exclusions still cause problems for farmers who might not be able to reach the global market. Yet, perhaps the most interesting part in the history of the farm bill is who and how it was influenced and how that has changed over the years. How farmers are represented has changed drastically over the years. The process by which the government has intervened in the industry has changed in large part not only due to economic changes but also by representation change.
During the 19th century, nearly all the states were in an agrarian society which means that the representatives in congress were mostly representing farmers. During the first part of the 20th century, this gradually began to change.4 The eastern states by this time were heavily involved in manufacturing, thus this changed the representation of farmers. Only in the western states did congressman still represent majority farmers. In the last part of the of the 20th century and now into the early part of the 21st century, the representation has changed more so.5 Now those engaged in agriculture account for only 2% of the population.6 Even most people in rural areas are no longer engaged in the agriculture industry.7 Before, the congressman would act in favor of the farmer because he needed to get reelected. Now, agribusinesses must form organizations and lobby the government to have more influence in how the government interacts in the industry and how the farm bill is created.
Possibly due in part from lobbyist organizations, the nature of the farm bill has changed. Turning away from simply educating farmers on how to produce more and improving the household income of farmers. The farm bill and government intervention, in general, has taken on a conservation and environmental tone. Congress is always bombarded by anti-agriculture groups and pro-agriculture groups. While these activist groups may not always sway congress or the federal government, they have a strong influence. Of course, the “kingmakers”8 also have a large influence on decisions surrounding agriculture and the environment. One kingmaker might sway the vote of a congressman or spur a new regulation of cause a deregulation.
In recent years, “the farm” is no longer the central part of the farm bill. The majority of the farm bills substance now consists of welfare programs such as SNAP, and others. The subject of welfare also brings up political divides between the two ruling political parties. The Republican party wishes to reduce the amount of welfare funding and programs as much as possible, whereas the Democratic party wishes to increase welfare benefits. The Republican party wishes to “help” the farmer by making sure that funds are available, whereas the Democratic party wishes that large farms be exempt from such government aid. This is a change from past decades where the two party’s stances were reversed from today on many farm issues.
In the current political environment, it will be hard to see how the process will go when the next farm bill is discussed. According to some recent polls, 8 out of 10 Americans feel that the country is more divided than ever.9 How can compromise occur in this type of environment? That is unknown. In the past, the farm bill and federal regulations surrounding farmers were something that tended to unite the parties. The exception being during the “New Deal” years and during the most recent bill that was discussed. The pro-agriculture and pro-environmental organizations will bash and bash with each other and with congress. What will come out of the next farm bill’s discussion or the next rule presented by the EPA may help unite the two sides or further send then into a whirlwind of hatred for one another.
- The Evolution of the Rationale for Government Involvement in Agriculture. Choices, 2006. By Otto Doering and Joe L. Outlaw. Retrieved from Byui provided sources.
- Domestic Farm Policy for 2007: Forces for Change. Choices, 2006. By Stephanie Mercier and Vince Smith. Retrieved from Byui provided sources.
- Agriculture and Food Policy. 2007. By Ronal D. Knutson and Barry L. Flinchbaugh. 29.
- CNN POLL: A Nation Divided. CNN, November 27, 2016. By Jennifer Agiesta. Retrieved 2/11/2017 from http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/27/politics/cnn-poll-division-donald-trump/