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Background



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Since before the founding of the United States, farmers received support through a series of markedly different policy approaches. Policy has at different times focused on distributing the Nation's vast land resources, increasing the productivity and standard of living of American farmers, and assisting farmers in marketing their products. From the 1930s, U.S. farm policy focused on price and income supports. Until 1996, farm policy relied in part on supply management in the form of acreage limits and storage programs.

Agricultural policy in the past 20 years has broadened considerably to include agricultural trade issues, food safety, food assistance, and conservation and environmental concerns, in addition to the more traditional focus on commodities. Beginning in 1985, agricultural commodity policy underwent significant changes that have moved toward greater market orientation and reduced government involvement. Farmers' planting and business decisions were to be guided more by market developments than by the terms and expectations of commodity policies. See the Program Provisions and Farm Policy section of the Readings page for selected reports for the 1977 Farm Act through the 2008 Farm Act.

Policy in recent years has also addressed environmental and conservation issues and food safety. Concern with liberalizing world trade and competing in world markets has reinforced efforts to reduce government support and increase farmers' flexibility to make production and marketing decisions based on supply-and-demand conditions.

Debate over support to agricultural producers involves a diverse group of stakeholders with different and sometimes conflicting goals. The range and importance of interest groups concerned with agriculture is expanding, even while the direct contribution of farming to national gross domestic product is declining over time. Higher personal incomes in the United States have increased the demand for safe and healthful food products and for "public goods" such as environmental quality and preservation of rural landscapes.

Selected concerns of agricultural policy interest groups
Small family farmers     
Limited-resource farmers    Income support; credit; education   
Farming as primary occupation, low sales (<$100,000)    Price and income support; credit; education   
Farming as primary occupation, high sales ($100,000-$249,999)    Price and income support; price stability; credit; education; risk management   
Retirement    Income support not tied to production; higher land values   
Residential/lifestyle    Freedom to pursue lifestyle   

Other family farmers     
Large farms (sales $250,000-$499,000)    Higher and more stable prices; freedom from government regulations; risk management   
Very large farms (sales $500,000+)    Higher and more stable prices; freedom from government regulations; risk management   

Agribusiness     
Nonfamily farms, including biofuels    Higher and more stable prices; freedom from government regulations; risk management   
Processors, including biofuels    Adequate high-quality supplies; low input prices; high processed product prices; strong export markets   
Throughput companies    Adequate consistent-quality supplies; strong export markets   

Taxpayers     
National    Low program costs; low administrative costs   
Regional    Higher local tax revenue from increased incomes and higher land prices   

Consumers    Low food prices, food safety; adequate food supplies; variety of food types; healthful food   

Environmentalists     
Conservationists    Prevention of soil erosion
Preservation of farmland   
Water quality advocates    Agricultural practices that limit migration of agrichemicals from farms to surface and ground water   
Wilderness advocates    Maintenance of open space   
Animal rights advocates    Humane treatment of animals   

Rural communities     
Long-time residents    Maintenance of traditional communities and rural lifestyle; employment opportunities; open space preservation; viability of rural communities   
New residents    Open space; odor control; rural landscapes   
Tourists    Rural landscapes; recreational/heritage activities   

Social welfare advocates     
Civil rights advocates    Adequate economic opportunities for minorities; opportunities for minority farmers   
Anti-poverty advocates    Provision of minimum income levels for rural residents   
Agrarians    Maintenance of viable agriculture, small scale agriculture   

Last updated: Thursday, July 18, 2013

For more information contact: Joseph Cooper, Anne Effland, and Erik O'Donoghue

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