Making heads or tails of the Farm Bill

As the U.S. Congress debates the latest version of the Farm Bill, it can be hard for someone who isn't a farmer or doesn't live in a farm state to understand what's at stake. This giant piece of legislation comes up for renewal every five years and guides the nation's food stamps program, agricultural research, and subsidies to farmers. But there are plenty of farmers who don't even understand it.

In a nutshell, because the bill gives big payments to farmers who grow just a handful of crop types (corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton), it rewards growers who have the most acreage and those with the least diversity in their fields. The agricultural landscape suffers, small farmers suffer, and there's little incentive to improve the way we farm or the way we distribute food.

Two recent articles from Thomas Dobbs, a professor at South Dakota State University (and a Kellogg Foundation Food & Society Policy Fellow), who has written extensively on the competing visions for U.S. agriculture that underlie different policy reforms, help give a sense of the political history of the bill and what it will take to move it in a direction that better serves the public interest. Specifically, Dobbs shows how Europe and much of the rest of the world have begun to see agriculture as "multi-functional"--that is, it is about preserving communities, farmland, and culture, not just about producing mountains of corn. He observes that this has helped guide their equivalent of the Farm Bill.