Changing Political Climate for U.S. Farm Policy[1]

John Ikerd[2]

The political climate for farm policy in this election year is fundamentally different than any time in the past 50 years. I received my Ph.D. degree and began my academic career as an agricultural economist in 1970—during another time of fundamental change in farm policy. Government programs to assist farmers were initiated during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Those programs provided economic security for the family farmers who in turn provided food security for the nation. During the 1970s, however, the Nixon/Butz administration fundamentally changed farm policy. Since that time farm programs have promoted agricultural productivity and economic efficiency as means of ensuring food security. The number of viable family farms no longer mattered as long as the costs of production were going down. In spite of the fact that farm bills since have pledged support for family farmers, a relentless quest for ever-greater economic efficiency has prevailed in the political arena for farm policy for the past 50 years.

Farm state Democrats and Republicans have generally agreed on the broad outlines of U.S. farm policy. Their debates have centered mostly on allocating the USDA budget between farm programs and food assistance programs—both of which were originally intended to ensure domestic food security. Controversies occasionally arise about priorities between spending for conservation and water quality programs and for programs supporting agricultural commodity production. Disagreements are usually resolved with minimal, if any, restraints on agriculture production—except during times of surplus production and unprofitable prices. Land removed from production under conservation or environmental programs during such times is typically returned to production once markets return to profitable levels.

This political year is different. In the 2016 presidential election, Republicans dominated voting in rural areas. This apparently caused some leading Democratic candidates to break with the tradition of simply promising farmers increased support for existing programs. The challenges of climate change, coupled with several years of excess production and depressed prices, add political credibility to calls for another fundamental shift in farm policy. Most farmers seem to agree that weather conditions have become more variable and less predictable. Droughts and floods both seem to be more intense and longer in duration. Later frosts and spring rains have delayed planting, while earlier fall frosts have further shortened growing seasons. Several years of less profitable prices have left farmers more economically vulnerable to climate uncertainties. Farmers, like others, may disagree about whether or not these are natural weather phenomena. Regardless, a constant barrage of news stories of climate related disasters seems to confirm that the global climate is changing.

How will the climate change issue affect farm policy? Republicans seem likely to continue to support the same basic kinds of farm programs that both parties have supported since the 1970s. They will assure farmers of increased funding of federally subsidized crop/revenue insurance to help farmers cope with any risks associated with greater climate variability. Congress will fund disaster payments for farmers in cases where crop insurance is insufficient to mitigate losses. Publicly funded research and education will continue to rationalize “agricultural intensification,” counting on more production per acre of land farmed or animal raised to reduce natural resource and environmental impacts of agricultural production. Publicly funded research will also support genetic engineering to make crops and livestock less vulnerable to climate extremes.

Democratic candidates apparently see climate change as an opportunity to differentiate themselves not only from Republicans but also from previous Democratic farm policies.[3] “Moderate” Democrats are approaching climate change much as they would any other resource conservation or environmental issue. They propose increased funding for existing and potentially new farm programs that incentivize adoption of farming practices to help farmers cope with climate variability and mitigate climate change. The policies of moderate Democrats might be characterized as incentivizing and supporting “climate smart management practices.”

The USDA currently has two major programs that could be used to address climate change: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)[4] and the Environmental Quality Assessment Program (EQIP)[5]. According to the USDA, farming practices approved for these programs can be used individually or collectively to “improve soil health, increase carbon sequestration, and build more resilient rural landscapes.” Some candidates have proposed new programs that would focus specifically on paying farmers for carbon sequestration. “Carbon trading,” [6] buying and selling of “carbon credits,” also has been proposed as a means of securing private, nonfarm funding to incentivize carbon sequestration by farmers. The practices listed below are listed among the USDA Building Blocks for “Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry.”[7]

Cover crops and reduced/no tillage to increase the carbon content of soils, increase water and nutrient retention, water infiltration, rooting depth, microbial activity, and decrease soil erosion.

Nutrient management practices for cropping systems, especially involving the use of nitrogen, to reduce energy use—practices include source, rate, timing, and placement.

Farm energy conservation practices to reduce fossil energy use greenhouse gas emissions.

Proper management of manure to reduce production and emission of methane and to increase carbon sequestration.

Other climate farming smart practices involve more permanent changes in land use to sequester carbon and reduce soil erosion. These practices include:

Agroforestry—integrating forestry with climate smart farming to sequester carbon.

Planned grazing or management intensive livestock grazing systems

Grass buffer strips along waterways and streams

Contoured strips of prairie grasses integrated with row crops

All major Democratic candidates have voiced varying degrees of support for a 2019 U.S. Congressional Resolution called the “Green New Deal[8]. However, only the more “progressive” Democrats seem committed to making the fundamental changes in farm policies that would be needed to actually create a Green New Deal for farmers. A Green New Deal for farmers would require a fundamental shift from commodity-based programs that focus on productivity and profitability to programs that incentivize and support farmers in transitioning to regenerative, sustainable whole-farm systems.

A sustainable farming system is fundamentally different from a collection of individual “climate smart” farming practices. Sustainability is most broadly defined as the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. Sustainable farming systems must be designed not only to conserve natural resources and protect the natural environment, but also to provide domestic food security and restore the economic viability of family farms and rural communities. Advocates of sustainable agriculture see the ecological, social, and economic challenges confronting farm families and rural America as the inevitable consequences of the current profit-driven, commodity-based approach to farming and food production.

Regenerative agriculture is a specific approach to agricultural sustainability that focuses on restoring past resource depletion and degradation as well as providing food security for present and future generations. “Regenerative Agriculture aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming and ranching communities. The system draws from decades of scientific and applied research by the global communities of organic farming, agroecology, Holistic Management, and agroforestry.”[9] Regenerative farming increases biodiversity, enriches soil health, improves functioning of watersheds, and enhances ecological and agricultural benefits for rural communities and society as a whole.

In summary, these basic farm policy alternatives may be summarized as: a) business as usual, b) climate smart management practices, and c) regenerative whole-farm systems. What kind of farm policies and farming systems will emerge from the current political climate? Obviously, we will not know until after the 2020 election—probably not until the next farm bill. Regardless, we need to understand the options under consideration. Perhaps most important, for the first time in a long time, something other than “business as usual” actually seems possible.

First, we need to start with a common understanding that the only politically defensible justification for government farm policies is to ensure domestic food security. That why food stamps were included in the New Deal farm legislation of the 1930s. That’s why government food assistance programs continue to be administered through the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA). Logically, programs promoting farm exports should be administered by the Dept. of Commerce and biofuels programs by the Department of Energy. The Nixon/Butz administration used the promise of greater domestic food security to convince Congress of a need to change U.S. farm policy during the 1970s. By one means or another, the farm policies since the 1970s have incentivized and supported the industrial model of agriculture. The industrialization of American agriculture was made possible by post-World War II agrichemical and mechanical technologies. However, it was “made inevitable” by supportive government farm policies.

The specialized, mechanized, large-scale nature of industrial farming makes it inherently financially risky. Farmers are forced to make large investments in land, buildings, and equipment in operations that are inherently vulnerable to unpredictable weather that can devastate crops, diseases that can wipe out livestock and poultry operations, and markets characterized by periodic overproduction. So, American taxpayers are asked to absorb much of these risks through U.S. farm policies—including various kinds of price supports, deficiency payments, subsidized crop insurance, disaster payments, loan guarantees, low interest rates, and investment tax credits. All of these programs incentivize or subsidize industrial agriculture. Under the business as usual option, these policies would be continued—perhaps even increased.

These kinds of farm programs were well intended. In fact, I helped promote the industrial model of agriculture during the first half of my 30-year academic career. I thought we were going to help farmers lower their cost of production and make good food affordable to everyone. We were going to essentially eliminate hunger. I thought the transition would be profitable for innovative farmers and that prosperous farmers would support prosperous rural communities. I thought industrial agriculture would be good for rural Americans. However, as I became painfully aware during the farm financial crisis of the 1980s, agricultural industrialization has unintended negative ecological, social, and economic consequences.

Wendell Berry—farmer, philosopher, and author—eloquently sums up the consequences in a 2017 letter to the New York Times: “The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.”[10] A 2017 Wall Street Journal article labeled rural America as the “New Inner City.” In terms of poverty, education, teenage births, divorce, death rates, disability, and unemployment, rural counties now rank below inner cities.” [11] Drug abuse and crime, once urban problems, now plague rural communities.

What did we get from all of this desecration of rural America? We didn’t get food security. Admittedly, American consumers on average spent less of their disposable income on food in the late 1990s than in the 1970s. Over the past 20 years, however, food prices have risen faster than the overall rate of inflation.[12] Furthermore, industrial agriculture didn’t succeed in feeding the hungry—even when supplemented by government food assistance. More people are now classified as “food insecure” than in the late 1960s.[13] In 2018, one-in-nine Americans were classified as food insecure and one-in-seven American children lived in food-insecure homes.[14] In addition, whatever has been gained by lower food costs has been more than offset by rising costs of health care. An epidemic of diet related illnesses; obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancers, now threatens the physical and financial future of the nation. Costs of health care are projected to account for one-fifth of the GDP by 2016.[15]

For an increasing number of Americans, “business as usual” in American agriculture is no longer acceptable. The very real environmental, social, and economic problems of rural America will not be solved, or even mitigated, by paying farmers to adopt climate smart farming practices—any more so than have past environmental and conservation programs. So, what would it take to bring about another transformation in American farm policy similar to that of the early 1970s? I believe real change will take an outright consumer/taxpayer revolt. The corporate agri-food establishment has used its economic and political power to take firm control of the farm and food policy making in Washington DC and in statehouses across the country. They have controlled both Democratic and Republican administrations.

We obviously need a major change in enforcement of antitrust policies to break the monopoly power of the agro-industrial establishment—which several of the Democratic candidates have proposed. However, politicians will find the courage to restore economic competitiveness in the agri-food system only when the people demand they do so. We “the people” still hold the ultimate power in our democracy—even if it takes another revolution to claim it. If “the people” keep accepting the same kinds of farm policies we have accepted in past, we are going to keep getting the same kind of agriculture we have been getting.

But we don’t have to accept business as usual. For the first time since the 1970s, a transformational change in U.S. farm policies actually seems possible. The Green New Deal[16] calls for fundamental change in U.S. environmental, social, and economic policies—including farm policies. The resolution focuses on the issue of climate change but would mandate fundamental changes in U.S. farm policies that reach far beyond mitigation of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. The resolution has not been approved by the U.S. Congress and has never been formally debated or put to a meaningful vote. Still, it has been endorsed, to one extent or another, by every major contender for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States for the upcoming 2020 national election. The Green New Deal will be opposed by most, if not all, of the major farm organizations, and farmers who are committed to or feel trapped in the current industrial agricultural system. However, it is supported by progressive farmers and farm organizations that have seen a need for transformational change in farm policy.

The Green New Deal would replace current farm policies that support an industrial agri-food system with policies supporting a sustainable agri-food system. It “will require the following goals and projects… “(G) working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible, (i) by supporting family farming; (ii) by investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health; and (iii) by building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food… (J)… restoring natural ecosystems through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage…; (K) restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems through locally appropriate and science-based projects that enhance biodiversity and support climate resiliency.”

In addition to presidential candidates, various non-profit organizations are shaping their political agendas around the principles expressed in the Green New Deal. One such organization is Data for Progress,[17] which is supporting the work of the Sunrise movement.[18] This is an organization made up of bright, young people who have educated themselves on the issues and understand that our failure to address critical ecological and social challenges is a direct threat to their future. They have developed a “Green New Deal Policy Series” outlining specific policy proposals. A bold policy statement, “Regenerative Farming and the Green New Deal,” was released in January 2020.[19] The following policy proposals are excerpts from this document.

Reform current monocultural crop insurance programs.

o Limit eligibility for government subsidized crop insurance to crops grown using approved soil conservation practices.

o Place limits of total acreage and insurance coverage to $250,000 market value of all insured crops eligible for government subsidized crop insurance.

o Over time, phase out government subsidized crop insurance programs for single crops and all commodity-based programs unless accompanied by supply management programs.

● Replace the current crop insurance with a Whole-Farm Net Revenue Insurance program that shares risks of transitioning to regenerative, sustainable farming systems.

o Modify current USDA Whole-Farm Revenue Protection program, but to guarantee a level of farm family income on parity with non-farm family income.

o To qualify for government sustainability transition payments, farmers would be required to submit a whole-farm plan for a regenerative farming system.

o To provide domestic food security, the transition program would logically focus on incentivizing full-time family farming—“Family Farm Transition Program.”

o Government transition incentives could be in the form of guaranteed “tax credits,” similar to those in current “Earned Income Tax Credits.”

● Support existing programs to prepare farmers for a transition from monoculture farming to soil building, carbon sequestering, regenerative farming systems.

o Reward farmers for undertaking practices that enhance ecological functions through government programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program.

o Pay farmers to retire croplands to native prairie in historic prairie areas. Use geospatial technology to locate places that could be retired to prairie.

o Incentivize pasture intercropping/rotational pasture crop systems in areas of lower yields croplands to reinvigorate them and add to income streams for regenerative farming.

● Transform training for existing U.S. soil health experts. Current emphasis on conservation practices needs to be integrated into regenerative whole farm plans.

● Grow the agricultural research and development budget to improve carbon sequestration practices and climate resiliency.

● Establish a National Composting Service to purchase and market compost, biochar, and mulch to provide additional income to farmers.

Many policy wonks are skeptical of the Green New Deal because of its lack of detail. However, it was never meant to be a policy prescription but instead a set of guiding principles. Perhaps the strongest opposition comes from those who realize that policies reflecting its core principles would fundamentally change U.S. farm policy. Quoting Molly Anderson, a highly respected international scholar and expert in matters of agri-food sustainability wrote, “Among the requirements for transformation is a citizenry that is sufficiently outraged by ‘business as usual’ to demand change by electing people to public office who will support the public good instead of private interests, and then holding those officials accountable.”[20] The Green New Deal is an expression of public outrage at the government’s failure to deal with as host of critical issues.

I believe the kind of public outrage needed for a transformation in farm policy will be similar to the outrage that brought about the American Revolution. As in the American Declaration of Independence, I believe the most important principle expressed in the Green New Deal is the reaffirmation of responsibility of the government to protect the basic human rights of people. It states: “It is the duty of the Federal Government to… (D) to secure for all people for generations to come— (i) clean air and water; (ii) climate and community resiliency; (iii) healthy food; (iv) access to nature; and (v) a sustainable environment; and (E) to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression”[21] It clearly states that clean air and water, healthy food, community stability, a sustainable environment, and freedom from oppression are basic rights of all people for all generations.

These expressions are similar to those of the founders of the United States when they drafted the American Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” The fundamental purpose of government is to secure the God-given, unalienable, basic human rights of all. We have the right and responsibility to alter or abolish it, if it fails to fulfill this responsibility.

The Green New Deal is not socialism; it is fundamental American democracy. If we have a right to life, we have a right to clean air and water, and healthy food—the very essence of life, and the liberty to pursue happiness. People, young people in particular, are demanding a fundamental change in farm policy because current industrial agricultural operations are polluting their air and water, tainting their food. They understand that climate change and other ecological problems are threatening their future and depriving future generations of their right to a clean and healthful environment. There is a growing sense of outrage at the current inaction of the government. I believe Americans eventually will “elect people to public office who will support the public good instead of private interests, and will hold those officials accountable.” This can be done, and we have an opportunity to do it in the upcoming elections. The political climate for farm policy is different from that of the past 50 years. However, we won’t get the fundamental, structural changes to farm policy we actually need unless we demand it.

End Notes:

[1] Prepared for presentation at the National Farmers Organization Convention-2020, Bloomington, MN. February 11, 2020.

[2] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia MO, – USA. He is the author of six books, which are available on Books and Kindle E-books, and dozens of presentation papers, blog pieces, and other website posts at and Email: The professional opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Missouri.

[3] Georgania Gusten, “These candidates see farming as the climate solution. Here is what they are proposing,” Inside Climate News, July 2019, .

[4] USDA Conservation Stewardship Program, Natural Resource Conservation Service,

[5] USDA, Natural Resource Conservation Program, Environment Quality Incentives Program, .

[6] “What is Carbon Trading?” fern, .

[7] USDA Building Block for a Climate Smart Agriculture, Implementation Plan and Progress Report, May 2016, .

[8] 116th CONGRESS. (2019). 1st Session. H RES 109. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. .

[9] Regenerative Agriculture, Definition, Terra Genesis International, .

[10] Wendell Berry, “Southern Despair,” New Your Times Review of Books, Reply to Nathaniel Rich, May 5, 2017 .

[11] Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, RURAL AMERICA IS THE NEW ‘INNER CITY’, TheWall Street Journal, May 26, 2017, .

[12] Historic Price Inflation for Food, Finance Ref/Alioth LLC, 2017. .

[13] CBS Documentary, “Hunger In America,” 1968, Https://Www.Youtube.Com/Watch?V=H94bq4jfmaa.

[14] USDA, ERS, “Food Security in the U.S., Key Statistics,” Updated Tuesday, October 11, 2016, .

[15] John Commins, “Healthcare Spending At 20% Of Gdp? That's An Economy-Wide Problem,” Health Leaders, September 19, 2018. .

[16] 116th CONGRESS. (2019). 1st Session. H RES 109. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. .

[17] Data for Progress, .

[18] Sunrise Movement, .

[19] Mackenzie Feldman, John Ikerd, Seth Watkins, Charlie Mitchell, and Johnny Bowman, “Regenerative Agriculture and the Green New Deal,” Data for Progress, Green New Deal Policy Series, Food and Agriculture, January 2020. .

[20] Molly Anderson, The importance of vision in food system transformation. “Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.” (2019).

[21] 116th Congress. (2019). 1st Session. H. Res. 109. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.