Government programs, exports and domestic consumption are the primary determining factors of farm income. Although it is widely agreed that the fundamental goal of farm policy is to maintain a prosperous, productive farm sector with a family-farm type organization, differences arise with regard to the means for achieving that broad policy goal.
In the United States, the idea that government has a role in supporting production agriculture dates back to the nation’s infancy. In his 1796 Annual message to Congress, President George Washington stated, “It will not be doubted that with reference either to individual or national welfare agriculture is of primary importance…Institutions for promoting it grow up, supported by the public purse; and to what object can it be dedicated with greater propriety?” (Gardner, 2000, p.1). The Commission on 21st Century Production Agriculture noted in its January 2001 report to the President and Congress that: “The relationship between government and production agriculture has existed throughout the history of the United States. Farm income support and conservation programs have long been a significant part of U.S. farm policy.” I cite these examples not because they make a compelling case for maintaining the status quo when evaluating government involvement in agriculture, but because they point to bedrock principles which reflect the fundamental goals of farm policy: (1) providing a safe and abundant food supply and (2) the retention of a competitive marketplace. Both of these objectives are intertwined with the broader policy goal of providing affordable food prices for American consumers.
Although the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was established in 1862 (and elevated to cabinet status in 1889), farm bills have not always been a centerpiece of domestic and foreign policy. As Cochran and Ryan note:
“The president of the United States and his secretary of agriculture were not active agents of economic policy formation in the agricultural sector at the turn of the twentieth century. This was true primarily because it was not deemed proper for government to interfere with the forces of the market at that time – with the possible exception of the manipulation of the external tariff.”
(Cochran and Ryan, 1976, pp. 104-105).
However, the onset of the Great Depression saw a surplus of agricultural commodities which led to greater government involvement in agriculture as an economic driver for rural America. Between 1936 and 1947 there were no fewer than ten pieces of major farm legislation or Executive Orders dealing with agriculture. In addition, at least 100 pieces of legislation between 1948 and 2010 were signed into law. Although a particular piece of legislation may have been targeted to a specific policy initiative, each has demonstrated a commitment by the federal government to ensure a safe and reliable food supply for the American consumer and the world at large.
Cochrane, W., and Ryan, M., (1976). American farm policy 1948-1973.
Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
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