Critics of farm policy often like to label it a “New Deal” policy. Their hope is to make the policies that underpin the best food system in the history of the world sound outdated.
Never mind the fact that farm policies have undergone radical changes since that time to keep pace with modern challenges and to ensure budgets stay trim—farm policy accounts for about one-quarter of 1 percent of federal spending today.
A good example is the evolution of crop insurance, which was put in place to provide farmers and ranchers a privately administered risk management tool while simultaneously shielding taxpayers from the expense of providing aid to farm country after each weather disaster. The fact that no farm disaster assistance bill was called for this year—which was marked with historic floods, droughts, freezes, and other weather anomalies—is a testament to the policy’s success.
The fact is, the U.S. government can and should play a role in agricultural development because it is in our national interest. Governments always have, and always will have a hand in farming as long as people need food, clothes, shelter, and fuel to survive. And, the history of farm policy predates the New Deal by a long time; from the very beginning of civilizations to be exact.
The Early Years
Amazingly, agriculture’s importance helped create government.
In Mesopotamia by 5000 B.C., early irrigation systems were developed. The need for cooperation and large investments of money and labor played a significant role in the development of government and law. In fact, it was the Sumerian government that was charged with organizing workers to clean and repair canals and other parts of the irrigation system.
Farm policy found its way into the Bible as well. Genesis 41 describes the establishment of government granaries administered by the Pharaoh and his appointed commissioner (Joseph of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat fame) to help stabilize Egypt’s food market during seven years of high yields followed by extreme famine. This policy led to Egypt becoming the regional power of its time.
China was reported to adhere to a similar granary principal from 1100 B.C.-300 B.C. and again between 581 A.D. and 618 A.D. to ensure adequate supplies at stable prices.
Beginning in 123 B.C. and lasting throughout its dynasty, the Roman Empire likewise used government resources to collect, store, and distribute grain to help smooth seasonal market fluctuations. Empirical monies were also employed to build an aqueduct system that is actually still used for irrigation by farmers today.
Farm Policies Evolve
As time progressed, so did the sophistication of the policies. By 1815, England had developed “Corn Laws” to guard domestic farmers from cheap foreign grains.
And in England’s former colony, the Founding Fathers were putting agriculture on a pedestal. On December 5, 1796, while addressing Congress, George Washington recommended the establishment of a National Board of Agriculture and said:
It will not be doubted that with reference either to individual or national welfare agriculture is of primary importance. In proportion as nations advance in population and other circumstances of maturity this truth becomes more apparent, and renders the cultivation of the soil more and more an object of public patronage. Institutions for promoting it grow up, supported by the public purse; and to what object can it be dedicated with greater propriety?
Congress took note. By 1820, the U.S. House of Representatives had a Committee on Agriculture in place, and the Senate followed suit in 1825.
Since that time, these committees have proudly overseen the creation of laws that have revolutionized agriculture. From the Homestead Act of 1862 to the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916, and the Agricultural Credits Act of 1923, lawmakers have helped mold an agricultural industry that is the envy of the world.
Today, our nation faces budget challenges not unlike those seen in the days of America’s birth or of the Great Depression that gave rise to the New Deal. And not unlike those days, there are naysayers who see less value in advancing the country’s food security or protecting its thin green line of remaining farmers and ranchers.
Luckily, those voices should remain in the minority. And with history on its side, Congress is sure to chart a course for farm policy’s future to help it meet tomorrow’s challenges.