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
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
National Low program costs; low administrative costs
Regional Higher local tax revenue from increased incomes and higher land prices
Low food prices, food safety; adequate food supplies; variety of food types; healthful food
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
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