In the United States, the idea that government has a role to play in support of 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?”
Daniel Webster, best known as a Senator from Massachusetts from 1827–1841 and 1845–1850, argued “Let us never forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization.”
On May 15, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation to create the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Over the next two months – in the midst of the Civil War – he signed additional legislation that expanded and transformed American farming, including the Homestead Act, and the establishment of the Land Grant agricultural university system. In 1889, the USDA was elevated to cabinet status.
Since the early days of the American Colonies and the founding of the Republic, agriculture policy initiatives and farm bills have been a staple of domestic and foreign policy. Agree, or disagree, these bedrock principles which have tended to reflect the fundamental goals of farm policy; providing a safe and abundant food supply, retention of a competitive marketplace, and achieving both of these objectives at reasonable prices.
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 2015 were signed into law.
Although each of these pieces of legislation may have been targeted to a specific policy initiative, what each has demonstrated is a commitment by the federal government and American taxpayer to ensure a safe and reliable food supply for the American consumer and the world at large.
Although 2018 might seem to be far off, discussions as to what the next farm bill should look like are beginning to surface. Coalitions are being formed, policies are being floated and strategic planning by stakeholders of all stripes is well underway.
There will again be a broad range of issues under consideration, including (but not limited to); commodity support programs, payment limits, biotechnology, conservation compliance, utilization of risk-management tools, federal dairy policy, agro terrorism, food safety, and nutrition programs.
In addition, policymakers will debate issues regarding business development and retention, transportation infrastructure, technology (including telecommunications), availability of credit, education, housing and health care as they develop agriculture policy and craft the farm bill.
The debate surrounding the last few Federal farm bills has made it clear that pressures for additional support for traditional programs contained within the agriculture budget be counterbalanced by efforts to curb spending in the face of ongoing budget deficits. The inevitable competition between spending priorities will play out against the backdrop of the national debt, unfunded liabilities in excess of $200 trillion and a growing debate regarding decoupling of the commodity and nutrition titles.
None of the above, however, will be considered in a vacuum because the agriculture policy playing field is extremely complex. There have been varied and conflicting ideals throughout the Nation’s history which have always surfaced during agriculture and farm bill debates. More often than not these issues end up being played out in the political arena in equal (or greater) proportions to the activity which surrounds the substantive discourse.
Members of Congress, the Administration, and stakeholders will again engage in a delicate balancing act as they explore policies that will not only allow American agriculture to remain competitive, but also those which will garner enough votes to ensure passage of the next comprehensive farm bill before the current one expires.
Dave Ladd is a frequent guest commentator regarding public policy and the political environment. His company, RDL & Associates, assists clients in achieving their legislative and policy objectives via strategic communications, message development and interaction with elected officials.
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