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.