by Marion Nestle
Jul 22 2013

The Farm Bill: A Very Brief History

I am an avid reader of Jerry Hagstrom’s Hagstrom Report, which I subscribe to and consider well worth the price.  He not only tracks farm and agriculture policy, but explains it in ways that I can actually understand.

Sometimes, his articles go to the National Journal and other places with open access.  This one gives a lucid history of the farm bill along with the politics of the current congressional impasse.

The history matters because the farm bill is otherwise inexplicable.

Here’s how we got to this point:

  • 1933       Congress passes the Agricultural Adjustment Act to deal with commodity surpluses that nobody has any money to buy during the Great Depression.  The bill included production.
  • 1936       Supreme Court rules production controls unconstitutional. Congress passes the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act to deal with this decision and the consequences of the Dust Bowl.
  • 1938       Congress passes new Agricultural Adjustment Act (this includes sections of the 1933 law that were unaffected by the Court ruling, the 1936 conservation law, and new commodity legislation that meets the Court’s standards).
  • 1949       Congress passes law giving high, fixed-support prices that trigger subsidy payments when market prices fall below certain levels.

Since then whenever Congress passes new farm bills, it suspends the 1938 and 1949 commodity titles  for specific periods of time (the alternative would be to amend those laws, or pass new laws that will be permanent and difficult to change).

Where does SNAP fit in?

  • 1964       Congress passes Food Stamp Act
  • 1977       SNAP incorporated into farm bill.

Hagstrom points out that SNAP does not have permanent authorization; it expires with the farm bill.  But it is an entitlement, meaning that anyone who qualifies gets funded.    This, however, requires congressional appropriations.

So everything is up to Congress, and none of the reasonable options look possible.

Sad.  Infuriating, actually.

  • To clarify, by definition, an entitlement gets appropriations. Not an option.

    However, an entitlement program may expire.

  • This is very informative. I will definitely read Hagstrom’s report. It is really interesting. Thanks for the link. 🙂

  • greenjeans

    All serious programs should be legislated to expire. Especially programs intended to tide us over until root problems are fixed. How long have w been fighting the war on hunger? Aren’t most of you always gushing over how urban agriculture and local food production and B-corporations are revolutionizing our food supply, how these are the modern answer to the age old answer of food insecurity? Why do we even need food stamps unless to keep Walmart and convenience stores churning out sales? Seems to me those food stamps are a big part of what is keeping the evil Walmart & despicable pals competing in the very market you urban gardeners covet so why not stop the food stamp influx and starve industrial food out of business? To hear you all tell it food stamp eligible folks could just strew some seeds on the dirt and gather more delicious fresh food than they could possibly consume. But you figure they are too lazy so they should eager ly buy from you, right? What’s the holdup? What the heck — have you been duping us all along, or what? Expiration should build a fire under your butts, ready or not!

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