September 6, 2013
By Jayson Lusk
With today’s farm bill hanging in the balance, it is instructive to take a brief look back at our nation’s long and complicated history with farm policy.
The Progressive Era, coupled with the Great Depression, enabled the New Deal policies of the 1930s. It was then that Franklin Roosevelt enacted farm price supports and supply controls in an effort to better the lot of farmers.
Some of the early efforts led to outright destruction of agricultural commodities at a time when much of the nation was starving. One of the most notable cases was that of Ohio farmer Roscoe Filburn, who was taken on by the U.S. government for growing too much wheat. Even though he planned to use the wheat only on his own farm, the Supreme Court decided his actions violated the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938. His sin? By growing more wheat than his allotment, the court claimed that he indirectly pushed the price below the bureaucratically determined minimum. The solution was simple: his wheat had to be destroyed.
The insanity wasn’t limited to court cases. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 paid farmers to destroy hogs, and millions of dollars were paid out for cotton farmers to plow their crop back in the ground!
So, despite the lines at the soup kitchens during the Depression, the planners of the era deemed it morally acceptable to destroy food in an attempt to reduce supply and ratchet up farm prices.
Curiously, social observers of the time often attributed the crop destruction and resulting hunger to farmers or to greedy corporations rather than naming the true culprit: Roosevelt and the New Deal policies. Case in point is John Steinbeck’s shocking description of the effects of those farm policies in the The Grapes of Wrath. After describing a scene in which orange growers spray oranges with kerosene to make them inedible, Steinbeck writes:
There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot. The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is a failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
Curiously, Steinbeck failed to note the true cause of the misery.
Today, we know better. Or at least we like to think we do. Looking at some of today’s farm policy proposals, I’m not so sure we’ve learned the right lessons.