Sometimes it seems like farm policy critics are stuck in the past, using the same old set of talking points for every congressional debate instead of taking the time to update them to reflect the real reforms that are underway.
Don’t believe us? Just think of how many times you’ve heard the term “Depression era” used to describe U.S. farm policy.
It was used in the 2002 Farm Bill debate, the 2008 Farm Bill debate, and it was still going strong when it showed up in op-eds, white papers, and even a Senate floor speech during the 2014 Farm Bill debate.
The fact that farmers’ opponents have used the phrase so often for so long has always struck us as odd.
Some pretty important policies came out of the “Depression era” – Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, FDIC insurance on bank deposits, unemployment compensation, and infrastructure development, just to name a few.
What’s more, the notion that U.S. farm policy is somehow still stuck in the past is laughable since it has undergone a more radical transformation than arguably any other core American policy.
That evolution – a product of the fact that farm bills are debated every five years or so to reflect modern times – has steadily moved away from government bureaucracy and placed more personal responsibility on farmers’ shoulders.
Today’s farm policy is built on individual choice and each farmer helps fund it through insurance premiums, insurance deductibles, and interest on loans. It uses market forces and private-sector efficiency to minimize taxpayer risk, while speeding assistance to farmers when they need it most.
Keith Collins, the former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, summed up this evolution in a video he recorded recently for the crop insurance industry.
Farm policy, Collins explained, was largely government controlled in the early “Depression-era” days. The government set minimum prices and told farmers what to plant and how much to plant. Farmers had limited choices and “had to do what the government said,” he noted.
But that setup was largely gone by 1996, long before critics’ main talking point became commonplace. Farmers were free to plant what they wanted and to participate in a new global economy where most returns came from the market, not government coffers.
And every farm bill since has made improvements to farm policy to reflect new market realities and to give growers an affordable safety net in a modern-world. For example, policies were developed to deal with volatile price swings created by ever-increasing foreign subsidies and trade barriers, and a more efficient system was created to quickly deliver disaster relief to farmers of all shapes and sizes.
Over that time, farm policy spending has trended downward. Direct payments to farmers have been eliminated and the farm bill is based on policies that kick in when farmers really need help dealing with forces outside their control.
And productivity in agriculture has flourished since then as the market has driven business decisions, leading to more trade, vertical integration, better technology, and lower production costs – factors that are important for our world’s safest, most affordable food and fiber supply.
This less government, market-oriented evolution is exactly what critics have been calling for over the past decade.
Now, if they’d only stop bellyaching long enough to update their Depression-era talking points to reflect the reality that farm policy is rapidly changing and headed in the right direction.
Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in learning more about the changes made to farm policy over the years, check out our Farm Policy History page.