The Farm Bill is made up of several pieces of legislation that affect private landowners. It is re-authorized periodically – approximately every 5 years.
Created in 1933
The Farm Bill was originally known as the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. Initially intended to help steer the country out of the Great Depression, this legislation addressed widespread domestic hunger, falling crop prices for farmers, and the catastrophic, massive soil erosion of the Dust Bowl.
The Act restricted agricultural production by paying farmers subsidies not to plant part of their land, let natural vegetation grow, and remove excess livestock. Its purpose was to raise the value of crops by reducing the surplus of agricultural commodities.
What the Farm Bill Does
The legislation often strengthens conservation and forestry provisions, addresses commodity payments, such as disaster assistance payments and crop insurance, and refines supplemental nutrition assistance programs.
The statutory language of the Farm Bill defines the programmatic goals and funding levels. It also authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to administer these programs through its Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA).
Farm Service Agency
The FSA administers commodity and disaster programs, plus the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
Natural Resources Conservation Service
The NRCS provides technical support to the FSA for implementation and administers many conservation programs, including cost-share, incentive, and easement programs. The NRCS also offers technical and financial assistance to landowners to conserve natural resources on their lands.
History of the NRCS
The NRCS began as the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). Hugh Hammond Bennett’s testimony before a Congressional committee resulted in the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936 and the creation of the SCS.
In the 1930s, crops failed, erosion was severe, and natural resources degraded so much that many rural families were forced off their land to seek a new livelihood. This was due to inferior farming techniques and long-term drought.
The SCS sought to relieve environmental degradation through the Civilian Conservation Corps’ (CCC) work with private landowners. Since its inception, this agency’s accomplishments have prevented dust bowls and similar environmental degradation during severe droughts.
By law, states established local conservation districts; when these districts asked for assistance, the SCS provided technical support. Eventually, this cooperative effort led to establishing an SCS office in most counties and parishes covered by a local conservation district.
Through one-on-one assistance to private landowners and others, the SCS developed comprehensive plans, with maps, and soil and plant information, to address soil and natural resource conservation.
Financial assistance, such as the Great Plains Conservation Program, Agricultural Conservation Programs, and Small Watershed Program, aided in implementing the recommended plans to preserve, repair, and improve resources. On the advice of Aldo Leopold, Hugh Hammond Bennett, chief of the SCS at the time, hired biologists to assist with wildlife conservation.
The Food Security Act of 1985 , also referred to as the Farm Bill, included provisions designed to protect highly erodible lands and reduce the loss of wetlands in agricultural landscapes. The CRP was the central conservation provision of this act. It provided annual rental payments to incentivize landowners to remove highly erodible land from production and establish a conservation cover. These measures marked a shift that began to both incentivize and enforce what were previously only conservation recommendations. Various options for promoting conservation objectives, such as cost-share payments, incentives, and easements, followed in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 and subsequent amendments. These programs became vital parts of the “toolbox” to increase conservation measures on private lands.
From its original goal to address erosion problems, the SCS’s mission evolved to the current workforce’s technical disciplines, such as soil scientists, soil conservationists, range conservationists, engineers, hydrologists, economists, wildlife biologists, foresters, environmental specialists, and more.
As its mission broadened, the name SCS no longer adequately described the agency’s work, so it was changed to the NRCS. Functions of the NRCS include mapping soils, natural resource conservation technology development, wetlands science, forestry, grazing land technology development, engineering support, and the Natural Resource Inventory.
In recent decades, a decrease in the number of employees and expansion of the agency’s responsibilities, such as conservation program funding, have challenged NRCS to administer Farm Bill programs. One result has been an expansion of partnerships with other agencies, non-government organizations, and technical service providers to meet stakeholder needs. Technical Service Providers (TSPs) are private or non-profit businesses or public agencies that provide services for conservation, such as planning, layout, design, installation, and documentation of NRCS-approved practices.
After being certified by NRCS to meet conservation practice standards and specifications, TSPs may be hired directly by landowners or through NRCS. Part of the service certified TSPs provide is documented completion of NRCS-approved practices and invoicing to assist producers with reimbursement from NRCS. Producers may locate certified TSPs via the NRCS database at https://techreg.sc.egov.usda.gov/CustLocateTSP.aspx (NRCS 2009).
History of the FSA
Like the NRCS, the Farm Security Administration originated from the Great Depression. Discontent with increasing unemployment and farm failures prompted United States citizens to elect President Franklin Delano Roosevelt upon his promise of a “New Deal.” In 1935, USDA established the Resettlement Administration, renamed in 1937 to Farm Security Administration. Tasked initially with relocating farm communities to areas where it was hoped they could operate more profitably, the Farm Security Administration turned to alternative roles when resettlement proved controversial, expensive, and ambiguous results. The Standard Rural Rehabilitation Loan Program provided credit, farm and home management planning, and technical supervision; this program foreshadowed the farm loan programs of the Farmers Home Administration.
Changes in conservation, crop support, and marketing occurred as 1938 saw the second Agricultural Adjustment Act and a general reorganization of the USDA. The federal government became the decision-maker for farmers, as commodity marketing controls and Congress’ policy to assist farmers in obtaining parity prices and parity income came into being.
A 1953 reorganization of the USDA changed the scope and responsibilities of its price support and supply management agency, along with its name. The Commodity Stabilization Service placed renewed emphasis on the preservation of farm income. The Soil Bank and similar programs were initiated to bring production in line with demand. Land was taken out of production for up to ten years. At this point, community, county, and state committees were first identified as Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Committees.
In 1961, the Commodity Stabilization Service was renamed the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) to reflect its stabilization and resource conservation missions. The agency continued to conduct farm program field activities through a state and county service centers network.
A 1994 reorganization of the USDA created the Consolidated Farm Service Agency, renamed Farm Service Agency (FSA) in November 1995. The FSA then included the ASCS, Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC), and the farm credit portion of the Farmers Home Administration. In May 1996, FCIC became the Risk Management Agency.
The FSA currently administers five areas: farm programs, farm loans, commodity operations, management, and state operations. By administering farm commodity programs, the agency provides farmers with security against financial setbacks. The agency is responsible for ad hoc disaster programs and continues to preserve natural resources via the CRP. The FSA offers credit to farmers who might not qualify for private, commercial credit; beginning, minority, and women farmers and ranchers receive special consideration. Through the commodity operations division, the FSA acquires commodities that are put to use for global philanthropic work, feeding the hungry worldwide, and school children in the United States. In addition, the FSA supports disabled persons by purchasing the products they manufacture.
Through state and county offices, the FSA administers programs to assist producers in adjusting supply to meet demand and improving the agriculture industry’s economic stability, such as farm commodity, credit, conservation, disaster, and loan programs. The goal of these efforts is to achieve consistent pricing of agricultural products for producers and buyers.