The 2018 farm bill is currently at a standstill as congressmen debate proposed changes to the bill’s SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) provisions. SNAP is a huge and important welfare program, one that reminds us that the USDA and the farm bill are not focused exclusively on farms, but are also responsible for a bevy of other rural development issues (such as rural energy programs, the rural housing service, and rural utilities service).

But this pause in the farm bill process also gives us an opportunity to talk about what this bill does not usually do well: namely care for the nation’s small to midsize farmers and incentivize sustainable farming methodologies.

This deficit in focus and care is not new. The farm bill’s bias towards bigness has existed for decades now, and was doubly reinforced during the 1970s by USDA Secretary Earl Butz (the man who notoriously told farmers to “get big or get out”). Many of the agricultural revolutions we’ve seen over the past few decades—from small family farms to large-scale factory farms, from crop diversity to commoditized homogeneity—emerged most prominently in the 1970s and 1980s under Butz’s leadership at the USDA. At the time, our understanding of agriculture and its purposes were also shifting: what had formerly been understood as a local enterprise meant to feed local inhabitants was increasingly viewed as a global enterprise meant to foster trade relations and massive corn and soybean sales overseas.

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