Fifty years later, 1968 is being called “the year that shaped a generation” by TIME magazine and other writers. It was a year that still haunts America:  The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; urban riots across the country; the Tet Offensive in Vietnam; President Johnson decided not to run for reelection; and Richard Nixon was elected President. (The Watergate break-in happened during Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972 against Senator George McGovern.) Also that year, O.J. Simpson won the Heisman Trophy.  It was quite a year. 

In the world of agriculture, Orville Freeman was Secretary of Agriculture serving both Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Following Freeman’s defeat for re-election as governor of Minnesota in 1960, Freeman was appointed Secretary by the newly elected President Kennedy, and he was retained in that post by President Lyndon B. Johnson following the Kennedy assassination. Freeman served until January 21, 1969.

Early in the 20th century, agriculture was labor intensive, and farms employed close to half of the U.S. workforce. In 1968, the farm population was 15,635,000; and farmers were 8.3% of labor force. Farm exports were $6 billion. 

Farm bills were not partisan in 1968; the fight was between the row crops of the Great Plains against the white crops of the South. Senators Dole and McGovern became well known for their work together on nutrition but before their work on nutrition they were working together to get another nickel per bushel for wheat.  

It was Secretary Freeman who proposed legislation to establish a permanent food stamp program (now called SNAP). It had been a pilot program up to that time. The program then became a national program under President Nixon, replacing the commodity program in 1973, after Nixon declared hunger to be a “national concern” and “moral imperative” at the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and health in 1969. 

In 1968, biotechnology meant the maximum use of pesticides and other inputs to plant from fence row to fence row. Yields were just starting to increase significantly and the United States was the leader in agriculture research. 

  • Today, less than 1 percent of the U.S. population farms but we export some $140 billion in agriculture products. USDA Deputy Secretary Steve Censky recently tried to quantify the significance of exports to the agricultural economy. “Twenty percent of farmers’ income is from trade,” he said, and each billion dollars in annual U.S. farm exports supports 8,000 American jobs.
  • Today, biotechnology is being used to reduce the use of chemicals and, most importantly, reduce the use of fresh water.
  • Farms now have phones, cell phones and GPS too. The goal is to bring broadband to all of rural America. 
  • The percent of our disposable income devoted to food has decreased dramatically in the last 50 years. We now spend less than 10 percent of our income on food and that includes food away from home. This has given consumers more disposable income for basic necessities, education, and personal items. 
  • Our yields have increased dramatically since 1968 (corn has increased over 100 bushels per acre) but China now spends twice as much as the U.S. on agriculture research which could have a drastic consequence for the farm economy and U.S. leadership in agriculture down the road.                                                                                                 

Perhaps the biggest change in American agriculture, however, is the unique impact that increased efficiency has had on the political power of agriculture. Farmers have become distant from their customers. Consumers don’t understand farming and what agriculture needs to continue producing a safe, affordable and ubiquitous food supply. The increased efficiency has also translated into fewer “rural” Congressional districts making it more difficult to pass a farm bill.

The long standing tradition of a bipartisan farm bill is being severely tested with this current farm bill. The farm bill just reported out by the House Committee on Agriculture will have a difficult time reaching the President’s desk given the partisan nature of the debate, especially around the SNAP/food stamp program. The vote was 26-20 in Committee along party lines. The House leadership will have to work that out on the House floor for it to get the 218 votes it needs for passage and, of course, the Senate will have some of their own thoughts. 

It appears that Speaker Ryan wants to use the farm bill as a down payment on welfare reform. This has put Chairman Conaway, the House Agriculture Committee and the farm economy in a very difficult position. It would be better to return to a bipartisan farm bill and address the work requirement in the SNAP program as part of a larger welfare reform package if that is the desire of the House.

Looking at these trends, and then projecting forward, agriculture faces a very difficult challenge. The world will need to produce twice the amount of calories to feed an exploding population. That will take public confidence in agricultural science; a farm program that supports a reasonable return on investment for farmers; a bipartisan Congress that respects and understands the importance of the farm economy; and an Administration that does not undermine agriculture trade. 

After the House Agriculture Committee reported their bill on a party line vote, Secretary Perdue said: “As Republicans and Democrats have farm interests in their own districts and states, we are hopeful that the 2018 Farm Bill can move forward in a bipartisan manner.” That sentiment is important both for passage of a farm bill this year and for the stability of a farm program going forward.

The Economist echoed that same concern in the April 21st edition. It noted that the previous farm bill included direct subsidies for farmers, a conservation program and crop insurance all to support agriculture. The Economist then continues: “In the past, a deal between Republicans and Democrats has ensured that both farmers and poor people got their cash. But the farmers are worried, this time around, that Republicans are more determined to cut welfare and less concerned to protect farmers than they used to be.”

About the author: Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture and food security at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.