NSAC's Blog

Celebrating 40 Years of Family Farm Policy

September 29, 2017

Generations of Eldridge family members on their farm. Photo credit: USDA.

Forty years ago, on September 29, 1977, the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 (that year’s farm bill) became law. Today, we at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) join other food and farm groups across the nation who are celebrating the inclusion in the 1977 Farm Bill of the Food Stamp Act, which became Title XIII of the bill. The Food Stamp Act was a tremendous bipartisan achievement, noteworthy in particular for its elimination of the previous requirement that recipients purchase their food stamps.

In addition to expanding food access for families, the 1977 Farm Bill was also noteworthy for a perhaps less celebrated but equally important accomplishment – the inclusion of the family farm policy and payment limitations as Title I of the bill. In one fell swoop, Congress asserted that it is U.S. policy that no federal program shall place family farms at a disadvantage – and then also gave legs to their support for family farmers by enacting a reasonable limit on the commodity subsides any one farm could receive.

Today, when the purposes of farm bills have become more complex, it is useful to return to the bipartisan farm policy statement from 1977, which remains the law of the land:

Congress hereby specifically reaffirms the historical policy of the United States to foster and encourage the family farm system of agriculture in this country. Congress firmly believes that the maintenance of the family farm system of agriculture is essential to the social well-being of the Nation and the competitive production of adequate supplies of food and fiber. Congress further believes that any significant expansion of non-family owned large-scale corporate farming enterprises will be detrimental to the national welfare. It is neither the policy nor the intent of Congress that agricultural and agriculture-related programs be administered exclusively farm family farm operations, but it is the policy and the express intent of Congress that no such program be administered in a manner that will place the family farm operation at an unfair economic disadvantage.

At a time when proposals are being considered to abolish the estate tax and enhance farm tax shelters to the detriment of the family farm system of agriculture, Congress would serve the public good by testing tax reform proposals against this standard, and reject proposals that do not foster and encourage family farm agriculture. Moreover, as Congress prepares to write a new farm bill, it would serve family farms and the public well for policymakers to close payment limit loopholes and extend limits to all types of commodity subsidies.

A second section of the 1977 family farm statute directed USDA to prepare an annual report on the status of the family farm system of agriculture and to include a review of all existing agricultural programs. The 1981 Farm Bill added to this directive that tax policy should also be included in the review. That annual report produced by the Economic Research Service has provided valuable information and important framing of the issues over the subsequent 40 years. The annual report also played an important role in informing the major recommendations for policy reform contained in the 1981 USDA report A Time to Choose and the 1998 follow-on entitled A Time to Act.

The most recent report, America’s Diverse Family Farms, 2016 Edition was published last December, and continues the tradition of updating “structure of agriculture” data. For instance, the 2016 edition notes that the largest farms, both family and non-family owned, are only four percent of farms but control nearly 30 percent of the land and account for just over half of the value of production, whereas mid-sized family farms are six percent of farms, and account for approximately 23 percent of both land and production value. The reports also address trends relating the structure of agriculture to measures of farm financial performance and farm household income and wealth, as well as examining the impact of federal commodity, crop insurance, and conservation programs. The 2017 edition of the report should be published by early next year.

Much has happened in 40 years, and our system of agriculture continues to evolve. Today is an important day to remember the historic trail blazed by Congress four decades ago. We urge the current Congress to rededicate itself to the cause of reforming federal policies to better serve family farms and to advance a full-scale renewal of farming opportunity in this country.

Categories: Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Farm Bill, Nutrition & Food Access

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