In the world of food, where free range and organic are idolized, farmers remain caged in by big business and government aid. The United States’ agriculture system has perfected the mass production of cheap crops, keeping the McDonald’s Dollar Menu true to its name and the price of a dozen eggs lower than that of a latte. This corporate success, however, has failed to prop up the farms sustaining the industry. Today, American farmers, stuck between profit-driven oligopolies and a negligent administration, are struggling to put food on their own tables.

While agricultural legislation focuses on subsidies and land evaluations, the politics of food is more often portrayed as an issue of American sustainability, prosperity, and self-reliance. Politicians render the farmland as a scene of pastoral calm and use this conjured image as a proxy for America as a whole. In all but two of his State of the Union addresses, President Obama mentioned farmers, praising their dedication and ingenuity and offering them as exemplars of American ideals. In his 2016 campaign, President Trump pandered to rural communities, pushing a narrative that rural Americans have been left behind in the globalized economy, sidelined by the outsourcing of factories and regulation of environmental resources. Trump seemed to offer a cure for their plight.

In a recent New Yorker feature on Trump’s transformation of rural America, Peter Heller interviewed the inhabitants of Grand Junction, Colorado. “I think America is lost to us,” mourned a woman in her sixties, explaining the abandonment she felt before Trump’s election. This feeling of abandonment augmented Trump’s emotional connection to rural supporters, who believe his “tough” rhetoric is improving America, even without any tangible legislative actions. Promises of “cutting regulation,” “bringing back jobs,” and “fixing trade” were vague enough to stir visions of higher crop prices, new factories, and the freedom to farm.

Past administrations have sought to relieve the economic strain on farmers. All have had little long-term success. The original Federal Subsidy Program, started by President Roosevelt in 1933 to remedy the problem of low crop prices, paid farmers to limit their production. Sixty years later and with a more robust economy, President Clinton overturned Roosevelt’s model. The 1996 Freedom to Farm Act established direct payments to farmers based on their historical land output, rather than their actual output in a given year. Clinton’s annual payments replaced subsidies as the government’s major form of payment to farmers and aimed to protect them from seasonal fluctuations. The plan was supposed to prop up the agricultural industry, but the formula used to calculate payments ultimately favored large factory farms, creating a barrier to entry for smaller operations wishing to expand.

Whereas Clinton’s Farm Act weaned farmers off subsidies, the Agricultural Act of 2014, passed 16 years later by a Republican Congress, moved to cut farmers off government entitlement altogether. Yearly direct payments were revoked, replaced by a glorified crop-insurance program. Similar to price-matching at Walmart or Best Buy, the government reimburses farmers for their losses when market prices fall below production costs for their products. The government is thus doing the bare minimum—ensuring only that farmers can break even.

Although farming in America is discussed as a domestic issue, it is, in fact, an international one. One in every ten acres of American produce is exported to Canada or Mexico, the two largest importers of US crops, in no small part due to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Since NAFTA was signed in 1993, however, the number of manufacturing jobs has decreased by almost 30 percent in the United States. The causes of this decline are still unclear, but are more likely a result of mechanization rather than the trade agreement itself; still, the visible loss of American factory jobs positioned NAFTA as a convenient enemy in Trump’s nationalist narrative.

As a central target of the president’s crusade for better trade deals, NAFTA’s future remains in question, a worrying uncertainty for the agricultural community. On the campaign trail, Trump labeled NAFTA as the “worst trade deal ever signed in this country.” (However, after being sworn into office, Trump has leaned toward renegotiation rather than termination.) The trade agreement raises an important distinction in the discussion of agricultural policy: The priorities of rural voters are diverse and could never be represented by one group, whether it be farmers or factory workers. NAFTA is critical to agriculture prosperity, but it exists simultaneously as a painful symbol of economic loss for rural workers whose factory jobs were outsourced.

Yet, referring to farmers as the primary beneficiaries of NAFTA does not tell the whole story. In reality, multinational exporters and distributors, who purchase crops from individual farmers, stand to lose the most in the event of a dissolution of trade agreements. Three companies control two-thirds of the soybean processing industry, with similar situations in the corn, dairy, and cotton industries. This type of oligopoly is reflective of the agriculture sector as a whole. A proposed merger of Bayer and Monsanto, two major input suppliers, would give three companies control of 80 percent of the US seed supply, further squeezing farmers’ already tight profit margins. The Monsanto-Bayer merger has been blessed by President Trump, who met with both companies in the days before his inauguration, even though the consolidation of power puts farmers in an even weaker position.

Through stronger regulation and the review of such mergers, the federal government could protect farmers and American interests. By tightening agricultural antitrust laws or prosecuting more aggressively under existing laws, the government could better regulate the burst of mergers in big agriculture and look out for the interests of local farmers. The president and the current Republican-controlled Congress, however, have no interest in increasing federal oversight on almost any issue. Indeed, regulation is the core irony of rural support for Trump. Stuck between aggressive input suppliers and greedy distributors, farmers sought a return to agricultural sanity. Trump, portraying himself as a savvy businessman and dealmaker, offered hope. But his message and actions to date have suggested an abandonment of the agricultural base that supported his victory.

Without government regulation, the agricultural industry would not remain afloat. The Agricultural Act of 2014—which is the major source of farm subsidies—is set to expire in 2018 and must be either replaced or funded for another five years. In his 2018 budget proposal, titled “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” President Trump proposed to cut $9 billion in agricultural support programs. Though Congress refused such a drastic measure, the president’s suggestion made clear to farmers his own priorities. Hopefully congressional Republicans, faced with the need for a new farm bill, will show their allegiance to American farmers.

Further legislation may be the most effective way to alleviate the current economic stress on farmers. New policies can shift the agricultural dynamic to the local vision of the last generation. Although the local label has become associated with Whole Foods, federal support for regional food could be the tipping point in the farm bill. Funding local food in school lunch programs and at military bases, subsidizing farmers markets, and increasing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for local purchases are a few simple propositions to decentralize the agricultural industry without directly taking apart the large corporations controlling it.

Though the Trump administration seems reluctant to implement even these simple regulations, and thus is doing little to tangibly help farmers, rural communities’ emotional bond to Trump might persist. As Heller explains, “The lack of legislative accomplishment seems only to make supporters take more satisfaction in Trump’s behavior. And thus far the president’s tone, rather than his policies, has had the greatest impact.” But tone will do little for these voters if they lose their farms to Monsanto. The Republican Party, in all branches of government, will be responsible for the fate of these rural communities.

Agricultural policy has the potential to be a turning point for a small but influential voting demographic. While the magnitude of votes from the farming community pales in comparison to that from any major city, our nation’s idyllic attachment to prosperous farmers underscores an important truth: American farmers are worthy of national political attention. The agricultural-industrial complex is an institution with a fraught relationship with the farmers who sustain it. Every husk of corn at the supermarket is a testament to the political and economic cascade providing cheap food, for better or worse, to a growing worldwide population. The party in the Capitol that can sow support for farmers will reap its own political harvests.

Before hemp became known as a mascot for hippies everywhere, it was used as a crop in various civilizations around the world for more than 10,000 years. One of the first crops ever to be spun into fiber, hemp has an astounding number of functionalities, ranging from paper to food to clothing, and it is more environmentally friendly than comparable crops such as wheat or cotton. Starting in the late 1600s, hemp was a fundamental cash crop in the United States, even farmed by George Washington for the production of rope and canvas. But even though hemp seed has a THC level below 0.3 percent, which is not enough to produce a high, industrial hemp production has been banned in the US since the first half of the 20th century after federal laws were passed banning all forms of Cannabis. Despite a rocky history and an uncertain future, a revived hemp industry has the potential to create new growth in the US economy and create jobs for American farmers.

Hemp farming was first outlawed in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which placed a tax on the sale of all forms of cannabis, rendering it economically infeasible to produce. As a consequence, the vibrant hemp industry quickly faded away. Later in the century, hemp was once again grouped with marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970; this time it was declared a Schedule I drug, even though it’s not potent enough to produce a high. Although the importation of hemp was legalized in 1998, it was illegal for hemp to be grown at all on US soil until the 2014 Farm Bill, which included an amendment allowing for research on industrial hemp production by states that have passed legislation to legalize hemp farming.

As a result of this new law, universities, agriculture departments, and licensed farmers in 20 states are able to start pilot programs and conduct new research. Researchers are kept under close watch of the government and DEA to ensure that the yielded hemp has low enough levels of THC to be in compliance with federal standards. On top of this, the DEA is reluctant to allow licensed researchers to import hemp seed in the first place, which means that it can take months before they can actually get the seed in the ground and begin doing fieldwork.

Despite the longstanding roadblocks facing the hemp industry, it has still managed to achieve some success:  The total value of hemp products in US is $581 million and growing. With this economic potential in mind, there exists widespread, bipartisan agreement that hemp farming could net large gains for the agricultural and manufacturing industries in the US. Hemp is multifunctional, able to be used in a wide range of products manufactured or sold in the US, including natural soaps, clothing, and even cars. It’s also a nutritious source of fiber, and it’s found in brands such as Hempzels, Living Harvest, and Nutiva. All of these manufacturers, however, have to import their hemp instead of buying it domestically.  If hemp were available domestically, which would probably be cheaper than importing it, both manufacturers and American farmers would benefit.

More companies might consider using hemp in their products if locally sourced hemp was available. Since legalizing the commercial production of industrial hemp in 1998, Canada has seen an increase in small businesses finding new ways to use and market hemp products – and most of these businesses have experienced growth. Food products especially have high potential in the US market: Manitoba Harvest, a Canadian hemp-based food company, reported 500 percent growth in sales over the past five years with about half of the sales coming from US consumers.

Less stringent marijuana laws in states across the country play a hand in changing people’s attitudes toward industrial hemp; as public opinions and state laws around marijuana change, people start to realize that it doesn’t make much sense to ban its less powerful cousin.

The legalization of industrial hemp could also seriously help American farmers: hemp seed is valued at anywhere from $477 – $900 per acre, compared to wheat, which is valued at $485 per acre. Support for this issue by organizations of local farmers has lead to bipartisan support in Congress: Senate Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul represent two of industrial hemp’s biggest supporters, largely because they believe in this industry’s potential to create jobs for their constituents in Kentucky, where the soil and landscape is a good fit for the crop. Paul argues that the new industry could help replace unproductive land that was previously used for tobacco farming and coal mining.

The growth of the hemp industry would also be a win for the environment. Compared to comparable crops like rye, wheat, and cotton, hemp tends to be more pest-resistant, friendlier to biodiversity, more beneficial for the soil structure, and more conservative of water. Hemp is a pioneer plant, which means that planting hemp in a damaged ecosystem can improve the quality of the soil and make way for new biodiversity. The industrial products of hemp are also more environmentally friendly than their alternatives: for instance, hemp can be used to create a renewable plastic compound that is much greener than non-renewable plastic compounds.

Although measures to legalize the production of hemp are supported on both sides of the aisle, Congress has been unable to make much headway. Progress has stalled on a bill Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) proposed to remove industrial hemp from the list of controlled substances in the Controlled Substances Act; a previous version of this bill died in committee in 2014. An increase in lobbying efforts by agricultural and business organizations could put pressure on Congress to pass a more expansive law, but investors are apprehensive about investing in the industry because of the tight federal regulations and skepticism on the part of the DEA, creating a political Catch-22 that prevents any strong legislation from even getting a vote. New research about the potential impact of industrial hemp on the economy might motivate more lobbying by agricultural and business groups to legalize commercial hemp farming, which could put an end to the negative feedback loop. But in the meantime, law enforcement groups are actively fighting against legalization efforts.

Opponents of a domestic industrial hemp market are concerned that the new industry would allow farmers to illegally grow and sell illegal marijuana because law enforcement officials would be unable to differentiate between the two different plants. This problem has not arisen in Canada, which requires a criminal background check on farmers applying for licenses to farm hemp and controls the production, sale, transportation, and processing of the crop, all without overwhelming local police forces. Additionally, researchers are working to produce a variety of certified hemp seed that guarantees a THC level below .3 percent, which would make the crop much easier to regulate.

Despite the federal ban, fifteen states have already passed pro-hemp legislation. Even though these laws are largely symbolic, they send the message to Congress that the country is starting to accept the idea of American industrial hemp production. Less stringent marijuana laws in states across the country play a hand in changing people’s attitudes toward industrial hemp; as public opinions and state laws around marijuana change, people start to realize that it doesn’t make much sense to ban its less powerful cousin.

Industrial hemp farming in the US would benefit American farmers, manufacturers, consumers, and the environment. Unfortunately, because of its association with marijuana, there are still misconceptions about hemp and a serious stigma that is quite hard to overcome for some members of law enforcement – former DEA administrator Michele Leonhart commented that the lowest point in her 33 years at the DEA was when she learned that a hemp flag had flown over the Capitol on the 4th of July.  But the attitude about hemp seems to be slowly changing, and both the federal government and various state governments have taken major steps forward in restarting an industry that has been in hibernation for almost a century.


It is abundantly clear to anyone visiting California this year that the state is in the midst of a catastrophe. The Central Valley is filled with parched fields; Northern California is wracked with fires; and the Sierras — the source of vital snowpack that feeds rivers and streams throughout the state — are bare. California is in the third year of its worst drought since the state began water recording in 1895. Some scientists have labeled it the worst drought in 500 years. Though catastrophic, the drought’s impact on California agriculture — an industry that depends on roughly 80 percent of the state’s water supply — has not been fully realized. This is thanks to the huge underground aquifers that farmers use to supplement an estimated 75 percent of lost surface water.  It is a technique that has been used for decades and is now dangerously unsustainable due to drought. In a normal year, groundwater accounts for about 40 percent of all water used in the state. Recently, that number has been as high as 65 percent. Farmers are pumping water out of the ground at a rate that can’t be replenished. In the San Joaquin Valley, water tables have been shrinking by as much as two meters a week. Many aquifers have dried up completely. California’s predicament exposes a veritable blind spot in the state’s environmental planning. Unlike every other western state, California has yet to implement a statewide groundwater management program.

Why is California, a state known — and often mocked — for excessive regulation, so behind on regulating this valuable resource? Part of the reason is historical. The current groundwater laws in California are largely the same as those in place during the Gold Rush, and it’s difficult to change laws that people have relied on for 150 years. In 1978, Governor Brown commissioned a review of Californa water laws, and stressed the need to pass comprehensive groundwater reform. And while many local governments, such as Orange County, have instituted their own management plans since then, statewide policy still treats underground water as private property rather than a public resource. In most of the state, residents are free to drill everything beneath them, without so much as a permit. In fact, recent years have become a groundwater gold rush in California. Drilling companies are flooding the state, working overtime to offset water lost from the drought. A UC Davis report found that California farmers will spend $500 million more than usual this year drilling for water.

Politically, the drought has created some beneficial corollary effects in the form of bipartisan cooperation. On August 13th, legislators approved a $7.12 billion water bond that would help to mitigate the drought in future years. In the past, political differences were too great for the legislature to pass any substantive water reforms, but the current disaster has spurred cooperation between the two sides. Republicans and Democrats alike voted for the bond, which included infrastructure improvements, a new reservoir, and environmental protections. The bill heads to voters this fall for approval. Noticeably absent from the bond were any provisions that would regulate groundwater, a perennially contentious issue in California politics.

With more than 80 percent of the state in extreme or exceptional drought, the two highest classifications, California’s groundwater supply can no longer be left ignored.

Two identical bills — Senate Bill 1168 and Assembly Bill 1739 — drafted with support from the governor’s office, were passed by the Senate and the state Assembly. The bills, called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, will require local governments to develop management plans by 2020, with the goal of having a sustainable water supply by 2040. In the Senate, Democrats have a supermajority and were able to pass the bill with ease. The Assembly, where bills require Republican support, could have posed a problem. Republicans in the state have historically fought for individual water rights, preserving the state’s libertarian approach to groundwater policy. State senator Jim Nielsen, for instance, recently wrote an op-ed in SFGate saying “Historic and sweeping changes to laws that threaten treasured ways of life and fundamental property rights should not be rushed through in the final four days of the legislative session.” Thankfully, the two bills passed were passed in the final days of the legislative session. Due to the pressing nature of the bills, lawmakers managed to pass what for years had been too politically divisive for any bipartisan consensus.

Though Senate Bill 1168 and Assembly Bill 1739 made the cut, GOP resistance to ground water regulation will be a continuous obstacle to long lasting reform. In conjunction with the GOP’s libertarian tilt, lobbyists are a driving force behind Republican opposition. The California Farm Bureau, one of the biggest lobbyists in the state, released a statement saying the bill would “devalue land and impact farms’ and businesses’ viability and in turn impact jobs.” The Bureau donates roughly 70 percent of their money to Republican officials. In addition to agriculture, oil companies use groundwater at a rapid pace, an estimated 2.14 million gallons a day for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”. The oil lobby has a long history of influencing California environmental policy. The Western States Petroleum Association ranks as the biggest individual lobbyist in the state, spending $4.67 billion on lobbying in 2013. As a whole, oil lobby spending in California has increased by 400% in the last 15 years. In May, the oil lobby spent $15 million to defeat Senate Bill 1132, which would ban fracking in the state. The bill failed, despite majority support from California voters. Recently, the Bureau of Land Management approved oil companies’ request to expand fracking in California even further.

With more than 80 percent of the state in extreme or exceptional drought, the two highest classifications, California’s groundwater supply can no longer be left ignored. Despite the huge obstacles the bills faced from interest groups and legislators alike, the current spat of legislative cooperation in the face of a catastrophe has spurred unprecedented reform. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and the $7 billion water bond passed earlier this summer, won’t solve California’s water problems entirely. But they’re an important start in a state that for years has been unwilling to do much of anything about increasingly dire water problems. The old political adage says “never let a good crisis go to waste.” That’s truer than ever in California, where almost four years of the worst drought in state history is finally leading to necessary water reforms.