Though many consider the farm bill to be a relatively recent creation, Jonathon Coppess says it holds a century of history.
The University of Illinois ag economist has been intimately involved in the formation of more than one farm bill. His interest in the route taken by federal ag policy led him to author a book about the subject.
“The Fault Lines of Farm Policy” takes readers through the 100-year partnership between the government and agriculture, from the post-World War I years through the farm crisis of the 1980s and into present-day concerns.
The 1933 Agriculture Adjustment Act gave birth to the first farm bill, though Coppess sees the beginnings of the legislative interaction as early as 1919.
“That was the first program directly helping farmers with select commodities,” Coppess said. “But I put it at 100 years because a lot of what happened in ’33 followed the years coming out of World War I. That was the incubator.”
Coppess, an Ohio native, went to work in 2006 as a legislative assistant to Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He was the main policy advisor to Nelson on what became the 2008 farm bill. Coppess also worked on the 2014 farm bill.
His experiences and interest in the subject prompted him to put together a comprehensive history of the farm policy legislation, which is rewritten about every five years.
The trajectory of federal influence in agricultural policy has taken twists and turns throughout the decades. The laissez- faire approach of the government in the early part of the 20th century gave way to market involvement in the 1920s, when farmers were struggling.
“Their economic depression predated the Great Depression,” Coppess said. “We changed government focus. During the ’20s there were several bills aimed at helping farmers. Certainly, in the Great Depression, we had these issues of unemployment and the Dust Bowl.
“There have been a lot of issues that Congress has tried to address. If you are a farmer, you have very little control what you pay for input costs and no impact on the market individually. They’re trying to address those risk items.”
In those days, far more people were directly involved in farming, and there was greater rural representation in Congress. Since then, districts have shifted more to urban and suburban areas, forcing rural legislators to include provisions in the farm bill that benefit those in urban areas, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Between those eras, aid took on the form of direct payments.
“From the farm policy perspective in the early ’70s we shifted to more of a payment system,” Coppess said. “Prior to that, we were trying to increase prices in the marketplace by holding down supplies and other things.”
Most farmers today consider crop insurance subsidies the most important component of the farm bill. It may surprise some that an insurance program existed much earlier, he said.
“We first created crop insurance in 1938, but it was limited to wheat, and not very effective,” Coppess said. “It was not until the ’90s and early 2000s when we reformed crop insurance using premiums. You insure your revenue. Those things have made a massive difference in how farmers view crop insurance.”
Some non-grain farmers complain that the farm bill does not provide much help to them. Coppess points out that one reason is the nature of perishable commodities complicates insurance payments for crops like fruits and vegetables.
“There is a certain segment of critics who point out that we only help major commodities like corn and wheat,” Coppess said. “But there was a stretch of time around World War II that we did try to help some of the more perishable commodities. One great example is Irish potatoes. Millions of pounds of Irish potatoes had to be thrown away.”
More recently, some provisions have been included in the farm bill that increase assistance to non-bulk commodities, including disaster and crop insurance.
“It’s a quasi-insurance payment program for those crops, so it’s been expanding,” Coppess said.
Another change in the direction the farm bill takes may be on the horizon. Coppess believes political polarization makes the future uncertain.
“We’re seeing the political environment for these kinds of bills getting increasingly difficult,” he said. “As we’ve seen in the last two farm bills, that’s making it difficult to get the bills through Congress. I’m of the mindset that we’re in a period of pretty significant transition, including the technology we’ve seen around the farm, consolidation and market challenges.”