Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reached back four decades, to the Carter era, in calling for a transformational 2023 farm bill that helps small and medium-size farmers earn more from the land rather than move to town.
Secretary Bob Bergland “issued a warning to all of us about” the problem of too much consolidation in agriculture, exactly what we’re talking about today, said Vilsack, pointing to constrained agricultural income for most farmers, other than the largest operators.
Bergland commissioned the 1981 report, “A Time to Choose,” that concluded “if a diverse farm sector is to be maintained, it is important that policies recognize problems peculiar to specific groups of farms and address those problems directly.” The report said commodity support and agricultural credit programs, tax policy, technology and marketing systems favored consolidation.
It was one of the few times the structure of agriculture, as the concept is known, was presented for national discussion. The report, published as the Reagan administration took office, was written during a period of high inflation, soaring land prices, turmoil in agricultural markets and shrinkage in farm numbers. Modern-day agriculture was efficient and enormously productive, wrote Bergland in the foreword, yet fundamental shifts in farm country were not discussed head-on.
“There had to be a way to move toward a policy that has a clear, honestly stated purpose and direction, and away from programs fashioned by events and circumstances and then labelled ‘policy,’” he said.
Bergland’s report recommended action to stabilize farm numbers, as a way to maintain vitality in the farm sector and vibrancy of rural communities. Otherwise, “we will see continuing growth in farm sizes, further declines in farm numbers, greater economic vulnerabilities among our larger producers and mounting resource-use problems,” said the report, which was mostly ignored.
At a Senate Agriculture hearing last week, Vilsack said the 2023 farm bill was a “transformational opportunity” for agricultural and rural communities.
“We’ve got to figure out how we can create more revenue streams for farmers, particularly those small and mid-sized producers,” he said, listing climate-smart commodities, organic agriculture, bio-based products and renewable energy as options for higher returns per acre. Climate-smart agriculture is a salient administration initiative.
“While our policies have ensured an increasingly abundant food supply, growth in farm size and consolidation has put extreme pressure on small and medium-sized farms and our rural communities,” said Vilsack.
Some 3.9% of America’s 2 million farms have sales of more than $1 million a year and operate nearly 26% of farmland. A decade ago, the largest farms controlled 17.7% of farmland. Four-fifths of U.S. farms, some 1.63 million, have sales of less than $10,000 a year in agricultural products and hold 30% of the farm land. The number of farms peaked at 6.8 million in 1935, during the Depression. Farm numbers fell sharply in the decades after the World War II.
Vilsack has not suggested changes to farm supports for larger operators. The largest share of USDA payments flow to big farms because subsidies are based on volume of production. At a farm bill listening session last week, two Texas producers said farm payment limits of $125,000 per farmer per year should be adjusted upward. Farm groups have asked for an expanded crop insurance program and a stronger safety net.
At the same hearing where Vilsack testified, Arkansas Sen John, the senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said, “The current safety net does not reflect the current levels of risk taken on each year by those that provide the food, fiber and fuel we all depend on.
The Trump administration doubled the payment limit, to $250,000 per farmer per year, in its trade-war and coronavirus aid programs. The USDA traditionally regards spouses as eligible for farm subsidies so married couples can collect twice as much as the nominal limit.
The report, “A Time to Choose,” is available here.