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The Farm Bill’s Problems Go Down to its Roots. It’s Time to Grow a New One

by Ryan Ackett, University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Climate and Community Project Junior Research Fellow

February 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Modern US agricultural policy has largely focused on boosting farm owners’ profitability, even to the extent of allowing massive exploitation of the environment and farm workers, which has been justified by the need to keep farms afloat

  • Radical farm organizers of the past instead viewed labor militancy and cooperative farm ownership as the solutions to rural poverty, farm loss, and wealth concentration

  • Strengthened environmental and labor regulation on farms coupled with the democratization of land management and farm ownership are needed to achieve social and climate justice in farm communities and beyond

Since the publication of Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America in 1977, it has been virtually compulsory for any progressive telling of agricultural history in the United States to reference a Cold War-era Secretary of Agriculture (though exactly which one varies by the teller) pithily summarizing his political doctrine by ordering farmers to “get big or get out.” The line was so direct, so cartoonishly villainous that it’s unsurprising that this framing of the virtuous small family farmer versus the government-backed giant corporate farm has dominated the debate over what the US food system ‘ought’ to look like ever since. These competing visions most often clash during presidential election years when the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren propose platforms to tip the scales in favor of smaller farmers by boosting their profits while excoriating large corporate farms, as well as during legislative fights over the Farm Bill- the omnibus bill that plays an enormous role in dictating agricultural policy in the United States. 2024 will expect to see both at once, after congressional gridlock led to Agriculture Committee leadership to pass a one year Farm Bill extension set to expire September 30, 2024- just weeks before the presidential election. Considering the US agricultural industry is directly responsible for about 50% of total land use, 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, and is the greatest source of freshwater pollution nationwide, the fight over the future of agricultural policy is crucial to any vision of just transformations in the climate crisis. 

Debates around who crop subsidies most benefit, how big farms are growing, and how best to revitalize family farms will grow louder in the run-up to the expiration of the current Farm Bill. But these have not always been the primary battle lines dividing conservative and progressive visions of the food system. Debate over agricultural policy in the early to mid 20th Century hinged upon a different, but still salient, set of contradictions that have never been resolved.  Earlier generations of progressives recognized that the size of farms was only one small part  of how land and profit are distributed in the rural United States. Moving beyond the simple question of size, these radical organizers and legislators instead saw the primary conflict of agriculture as one of landlord versus labor, corporate versus cooperative, private versus public.

The origins of the Farm Bill and social struggles for a new Agri-Food system 


A full decade before the 1929 stock market crash ground the United States economy to a halt, farmers were plunged into their own economic- and environmental- crisis. World War One had created a huge market for food exports as millions across Europe marched off their farms and into war, but as this unprecedented demand for US grown food ended by the late 1910’s, the best crop prices in memory suddenly became the worst. In the ensuing Farm Crisis thousands of farmers lost everything while countless others plowed their crops back into the soil, hoping to at least use them for fertilizer if not for anything else. Even worse, the overproduction at the heart of the economic crisis combined with land mismanagement culminated in the most catastrophic environmental disaster in US history, the Dust Bowl. Thousands of tons of topsoil were swept away into “black blizzards” that suffocated entire towns and destroyed the livelihoods of tens of thousands of families.

Within his first year in office, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt rushed to pass a suite of bills which together formed what can be considered the very first Farm Bill. The most impactful of these established the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) via an emergency bill essentially repackaged from an earlier bill vetoed by Coolidge. The AAA sought to bail out struggling small farmers by promising farmers prices or par with the best years of the WW1 era in exchange for reducing their planting acreage. As a bonus (or one might also call it an afterthought), this plan could also help to reverse the environmental crisis farmers disproportionately both caused and suffered from by taking land out of production. This seemed to be exactly what small farmers were demanding: if the crisis was low prices and overproduction, then simply lower production and raise prices. This federal program attracted 5 million farmers in its first two years and worked to significantly raise crop prices and stabilize markets and erosion.

But not everyone shared in the prosperity brought by the AAA. Wallace and most other agriculturalists in the Roosevelt administration came from midwestern farms, a region largely dominated by family farmers and homesteaders, and it was these mostly white patriarchal farms which benefited most from these new policies. The farms of the South and West, however, were much larger and were worked not by families but by landless, largely Black and immigrant labor forces paid a pittance for long hours under the beating sun. When the AAA came into effect tenant farmers renting their plots were the first to be evicted to satisfy acreage reduction requirements, and when the AAA paid out for the guaranteed higher crop prices, checks were made out to the landlords. This was no minor design flaw- in the South more than half of all farmers owned no land, including 77% of all Black farmers. Rather than bring about broad prosperity to keep farmers on their land, this failure to reckon with critical agrarian class dynamics led to soaring profits for land owners and an acceleration of land concentration.

Landless farmers across the United States fought viciously against the AAA, and for a new system which would benefit all agricultural workers, and not just the landowning few. Through unionization these workers fought to be included as beneficiaries in federal program payments, higher wages, better working conditions, housing, a ban on evictions, and an end to racist discriminatory pay rates. When these demands were refused by farm owners, the majority Black Alabama Sharecroppers Union organized massive strikes which were immediately suppressed by the scab workers, police brutality, and white mob violence resulting in the lynching of union leaders like Jim Merriweather. The multiracial Southern Tenant Farmers Union demanded an end to the AAA, identifying that the greatest threat to most agricultural workers was not low crop prices but the inability to share in the profits from their sales. It was strikes that raised wages, not agricultural prices. For tenant farmers the increased federal payments just meant that their landlords could afford to buy up more land and create more tenants. 

Despite important gains, smaller farmers were nevertheless losing their land at a rapid rate due to the structural advantage of larger operations under the AAA and the inherent volatility of the business of farming. Recognizing that they were experiencing the beginning of a trend, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union argued that only a fundamental change to how farms operated could resist the mass proletarianization of farming. To the STFU, if family farming was desirable because it democratizes farmland ownership, shares the profits of agriculture among a greater number of people, and reduces labor alienation, then why not apply these principles to all farms large and small, family or not? The organization envisioned a “farm economy based on the idea of cooperation and mutual assistance,” which involved collective ownership, democratic decision making, and tightly knit farm villages. The benefits of this model would be shared prosperity over the concentration of profits, community and care over rural isolation, and the ability to endure bad weather and poor crop prices through larger scale and greater potential for diversity. 

As radical as these proposals may seem compared to today’s reality of hyper-corporate farm ownership, for a brief moment they appeared not just possible but already beginning to take form. Recognizing the potential for such a model to rectify the damage done by the AAA, in the late 1930’s the USDA purchased parcels of land all over the country. It then set about establishing cooperative farms owned, worked, and managed by a community of farmers and their families looking for stability and access to the land in the crisis stricken countryside. The very existence of these farming experiments was an affront to more conservative government officials and congress members who asked why “Little Russia” farms had suddenly sprouted up across the US. Following pressure from the Farm Bureau and the House Committee on Agriculture the program was financially hamstrung, ensuring a swift end to this transformative experiment. Yet in their brief existence these farms provided greatly improved wages, working conditions, self determination, and community support than could be had by workers- and even many landowners- on other farms.

The results of failed agricultural policy- and how to start fixing it


The subsequent history of the 20th century has demonstrated that the STFUs greatest fears of the rise of extractive capitalist farming have largely come true, with consequences extending far beyond the farm. Over the past 150 years the Midwest has lost nearly a full foot of soil to erosion, 99% of prairies and 53% of wetlands that once provided diverse and thriving ecosystems and stored vast amounts of carbon have been lost primarily to agricultural expansion, 8-20% of groundwater drinking sources contain dangerous levels of fertilizer chemicals, and agriculture contributes over 10% US greenhouse gas emissions. Both today and throughout modern history, US agricultural policy has envisioned environmental protection and restoration primarily as an additional revenue stream for farmland owners, and if ever the two come into conflict, profit wins. The titans of agriculture have skillfully spun imagery of quaint pastoral yeoman and Jeffersonian mythos into large carve-outs in environmental and labor law, granted to alleviate the supposedly impossible burden they would place on the poor, hardworking farmer. The result is a policy and a legal system which give landowners broad rights to manage and mismanage their farms however they see fit, regardless of the impacts on workers and surrounding communities. Thus environmental degradation must not be understood as a separate issue from labor exploitation and land concentration, but as each originating from an antidemocratic paradigm which yields all power to landowners. Just as workers are given no voice in directing farm decisions nor a fair share in its profits, rural people and frontline communities are given no voice in the management of their collective natural resources nor a share of the profits when farms disproportionately extract or degrade the land and waters. 

As the political battle over the 2024 Farm Bill accelerates over the coming months, progressives have the monumental task of envisioning and organizing for a fundamental shift in the way that policy has shaped US agriculture. The current Farm Bill asks almost nothing in the way of labor protections, responsible farm management, and environmental protection in exchange for massive federal subsidies paid directly to landowners without which their extractive farming model could not survive. In fact, many of the most environmentally damaging practices are encouraged by the Farm Bill. Workers have been organizing to change this system for generations- the Oxnard sugar strike of Japanese and Mexican workers in 1903, the multiracial United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America which united both field and food processing workers, the United Farm Workers who helped agricultural workers gain the right to collectively bargain in California, and countless other campaigns- yet these organizations have consistently been met and ultimately thwarted by the cooperation, and at times, violence, of agrarian capitalists. Yet perhaps their most critical victory of these agrarian capitalists has been in guiding concerned citizens witnessing poverty, racism, brutality, and environmental destruction to understand these problems through a lens of increasing farm scale, the loss of family farmers, insufficient virtuousness or connection to the land, use of unnatural techniques- anything other than simple class struggle on the farm

Progressives’ erstwhile strategy of attempting to fight the tide of agricultural concentration through the provision of subsidies and income supports intended to keep small farmers afloat has largely failed to do so, and more critically forgets that there are many millions more people beyond small scale landowners who are deserving of the right to make a good living off the land and a voice in their workplaces and communities. A Green New Deal for our food system will need to roll back land and wealth concentration by deepening rural democracy on farms and farm communities. By fairly applying environmental and labor regulations on our farms, the 2024 Farm Bill could shift the advantage away from the dominance of corn and soy that can only be profitable when grown by the hundreds of acres and taking federal subsidies hand over fist, as well as the environmentally and socially toxic factory animal farms which doubly benefit from cheap grain and lax regulatory oversight. This new paradigm in farming and land use would then present an opportunity to prioritize new models of cooperative farm ownership which would break the barriers to land access for countless new and historically marginalized aspiring farmers. These farms could grow the food people actually want to eat, alleviating food deserts while simultaneously replacing our deserts of grain with climate-healing native ecosystems, renewable energy, and public parks and recreation planned through democratic decision-making. We envision a Farm Bill that commences this transition toward justice, taking inspiration from radical moments from our past and the ongoing struggles waged by organizers and frontline communities for the climate, clean water, healthy soils, imperiled ecosystems, and land justice here and everywhere.

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