The Politics of Food Supply: U. S. Agricultural Policy in the World Economy

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Overview

This book deals with an important and timely issue: the political and economic forces that have shaped agricultural policies in the United States during the past eighty years. It explores the complex interactions of class, market, and state as they have affected the formulation and application of agricultural policy decisions since the New Deal, showing how divisions and coalitions within Southern, Corn Belt, and Wheat Belt agriculture were central to the ebb and flow of price supports and production controls. In addition, the book highlights the roles played by the world economy, the civil rights movement, and existing national policy to provide an invaluable analysis of past and recent trends in supply management policy.

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Editorial Reviews

ASEAN Economic Bulletin

"Bill Winders in The Politics of Food Supply: U.S. Agricultural Policy in the World Economy provides an engaging and incisive account of the history and political economy of farm policy in the United States."--Sandeep Vaheesan

— Sandeep Vaheesan

American Journal of Sociology

"Winders''s book is at its best when it links both the policy''s [of agricultural supply management] persistence and its 1996 elimination to the political support of three commodity-based segments within agriculture: corn, wheat, and cotton. Winders claims that class transformation within the cotton segment was the ultimate key to the policy reversal."—Edward C. Jaenicke, American Journal of Sociology

— Edward C. Jaenicke

Agriculture and Human Values

“In The Politics of Food Supply Winders makes a significant contribution to the sociology of agrifood studies. Established academics and graduate students in the areas of historical sociology and the sociology of the agrifood system will find this book an engaging read as well as a valuable example of critical agrifood research.”—Douglas H. Constance, Agriculture and Human Values

— Douglas H. Constance

American Journal of Sociology - Edward C. Jaenicke

"Winders's book is at its best when it links both the policy's [of agricultural supply management] persistence and its 1996 elimination to the political support of three commodity-based segments within agriculture: corn, wheat, and cotton. Winders claims that class transformation within the cotton segment was the ultimate key to the policy reversal."—Edward C. Jaenicke, American Journal of Sociology
Philip McMichael

"Breaking new ground, Winders' original class analysis of US agricultural politics differentiates commodity programs as vectors of privilege and change in farm policy and markets at home and abroad."—Philip McMichael, Cornell University
Jill Quadagno

"The Politics of Food Supply traces the fate of New Deal agricultural policies that were the mainstay of federal policy until the 1990s. In a fascinating historical account, Bill Winders explains why a nation wedded to a free market ideology has provided price supports for each of the major crops—corn, cotton and wheat—in its agricultural policy. A pathbreaking contribution to political sociology and comparative historical sociology."—Jill Quadagno, author of One Nation, Uninsured: Why the US Has No National Health Insurance

ASEAN Economic Bulletin - Sandeep Vaheesan

"Bill Winders in The Politics of Food Supply: U.S. Agricultural Policy in the World Economy provides an engaging and incisive account of the history and political economy of farm policy in the United States."--Sandeep Vaheesan
Agriculture and Human Values - Douglas H. Constance

“In The Politics of Food Supply Winders makes a significant contribution to the sociology of agrifood studies. Established academics and graduate students in the areas of historical sociology and the sociology of the agrifood system will find this book an engaging read as well as a valuable example of critical agrifood research.”—Douglas H. Constance, Agriculture and Human Values
American Sociological Association - Distinguished Book Award
Winner of the 2011 Political Economy of the World-System (PEWS) Section of the American Sociological Association Book Award
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300139242
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 5/19/2009
  • Series: Yale Agrarian Studies Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Bill Winders is associate professor of sociology, the School of History, Technology, and Society, Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives in Atlanta.

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Read an Excerpt

The Politics of Food Supply

U.S. Agricultural Policy in the World Economy
By Bill Winders

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 William Winders
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13924-2


Chapter One

Introduction Agriculture between State and Market

... we ought not to create any situation that pits one segment of agriculture against another. -BRYCE NEIDIG, PRESIDENT OF THE NEBRASKA FARM BUREAU FEDERATION, 1995

Throughout most of the twentieth century, agricultural policy in the United States veered sharply from free market principles by emphasizing supply management. Beginning with the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) in 1933 as a response to the Great Depression, supply management policy rested on two programs: price supports and production controls. Price supports provided artificially high prices for certain field crops-most notably wheat, corn, and cotton. To receive these higher prices, however, farmers had to adhere to production controls, which restricted the production of these same commodities. To be eligible for cotton price supports, for example, a southern farmer might be limited to growing cotton on only 60 percent of the farm's acreage. The farmer might use the remaining 40 percent to grow corn or soybeans, to use as pasture, or to just leave idle. The point was to reduce the amount of land used in producing particularagricultural commodities. Through supply management policy, then, the federal government set minimum prices for and regulated the production of various agricultural commodities as a way to raise farm income.

Over the years, the contours of agricultural policy changed even as price supports and production controls remained the constant pillars. The federal government's influence on the market economy ebbed and flowed as supply management policy expanded and contracted. The most significant retrenchment came in 1996 with the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform (FAIR) Act-often called the "Freedom to Farm" Act. The FAIR Act ended production controls by removing most restrictions on agricultural production: it allowed farmers to grow any commodity, in any amounts, and on any portion of their land. This legislation also eliminated price supports, which are tied to market prices, and replaced them with fixed, declining payments. Therefore, the FAIR Act effectively terminated the policy of supply management. In 2002, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act revived a version of price supports but not production controls. Without production controls, U.S. agricultural policy no longer manages supply.

So how can we explain the contours of twentieth-century agricultural policy? One place to start is at the political front lines: congressional hearings about farm policy. In such hearings, supporters and opponents of supply management policy-including politicians, individual farmers, agribusiness companies, and farm organizations-state their preferences and make their cases. These political battles lay bare the fundamental and recurring regional divisions within agriculture-particularly among the South, Wheat Belt, and Corn Belt. Most often, the cotton-producing South allied with the Wheat Belt to support supply management policy, while the Corn Belt pursued more market-oriented policies. Such divisions had a profound effect on agricultural policy throughout the twentieth century. One hearing during the height of the Cold War particularly exposed the divisions between the South and the Corn Belt.

Cotton versus Corn in the 1950s

In January 1958, a subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee held public hearings to discuss the future direction of U.S. agricultural policy, focusing on programs for corn and other feed grains. W. Robert Poage (D-TX), who chaired the subcommittee, favored supply management policy, as did most southern Democrats. The subcommittee heard testimony from representatives of the American Farm Bureau Federation-the largest and most influential U.S. farm organization-which, by 1958, had been expressing opposition to price supports and production controls for more than a decade. The Farm Bureau favored a more market-oriented agricultural policy that was at odds with preferences of members of the House Agriculture Committee. The differences, which were based on competing economic interests of corn farmers represented by the Farm Bureau and cotton farmers represented by southern Democrats, came to a head in these subcommittee hearings.

Chairman Poage opened the hearings by noting that "the committee will have to determine whether we want to follow a course that will give us high-priced feed or low-priced feed." The former would likely rest on supply management, but the latter would not. Roger Fleming, the secretary-treasurer of the Farm Bureau, presented a proposal for changes in agricultural policy that included ending production controls for corn, reducing price supports for all commodities, and emphasizing exports. Fleming also explained that production controls for other commodities, such as wheat and cotton, needed to be changed because "diverted acres from other crops [due to production controls] have gone into feed grains" and thereby distorted markets in the feed and livestock industries.

Despite a cordial beginning, in which Poage told Fleming that the subcommittee was "delighted" to hear from the Farm Bureau, the exchange between members of the subcommittee and the Farm Bureau officials quickly became heated.

MR. POAGE: I just asked you whether you believe it would assist the livestock people and help them, to have the price of corn higher or lower than it is today.

MR. FLEMING: Well, it is our recommendation to this committee that this proposal, which we have made and which is reported in dollar and cents at the top of page 11, would best serve the interests of the feed grain and livestock producers.

MR. POAGE: You still have not answered my question. If you don't want to answer it, all you need to do is say so-I asked you whether you feel that it would be advantageous to the livestock producers to have the price of corn higher or lower than it is at the present time.

MR. FLEMING: ... We have made specific recommendations in dollars and cents. I don't know how we can make it more specific than that.

MR. POAGE: Well, just assume that I am too ignorant to understand your printed recommendations. Just answer my question and tell me whether you people think it would be advantageous to the livestock producers to have the price of corn higher or lower than it is at the present time.

MR. FLEMING: Well, first of all, you and I can get into an argument as to your ignorance-

MR. POAGE: No, assume I am ignorant.

MR. FLEMING: I take the position that you are pretty smart.

MR. POAGE: Well, thank you, but go ahead, let us get your answer.

MR. FLEMING: We are for the proposal contained at the top of page 11.

MR. POAGE: I know, but are you in favor ... of [a] higher or lower price of corn right now?

MR. FLEMING:: If the price currently is below, the way our proposal would work out, then we are for it being higher. I suggest that you-

MR. POAGE: I think it is safe to say that you are the representative of the largest farm organization in the world. Don't you know the answer?

MR. FLEMING: Well, yes-

MR. POAGE: What I am asking you to do is to answer the question....

For much of the hearing, the committee and the Farm Bureau representatives wrangled in this manner over price supports, production controls, farm income, and previous policy positions of the Farm Bureau. This was largely because the Farm Bureau advocated significantly weakening supply management policy-eliminating many production controls, dramatically reducing price supports, and creating greater reliance on markets-while the committee, especially the southern Democrats, resisted such ideas. Tensions reached the boiling point, however, toward the end of the hearing, when the specter of communism emerged. The exchange over this issue began between Paul Jones (D-MO) and Frank Woolley, legislative counsel for the Farm Bureau.

MR. JONES: I have one question before we adjourn. Mr. Woolley ... didn't you tell me then that the program we were suggesting of payments on cotton had been originally inspired by Communists, and that it was a Communist-inspired program-did you tell me that?

MR. WOOLLEY: No. What I said to you was that in 1955-and I am glad you asked that because-

MR. JONES: ... did you tell me that?

MR. WOOLLEY: Now, Congressman, I want-

MR. JONES: I want you to tell me yes or no.

Woolley said he could not remember whether he had brought up the issue of communism with Mr. Jones, but Woolley went on to discuss a pamphlet in his possession that was printed in 1955 by the Communist Party in the United States and titled "The Farm Crisis." According to Woolley, the pamphlet showed that the Communist Party "unequivocally supports production payments." Chairman Poage then joined the fray.

MR. POAGE: Well, now, let us get this straight.

When you come to making those comments charging communism in this committee, and that is what you are doing, calling us Communists, because we are opposed to your proposal-let us lay it out on the table, and you just go ahead and name the people that you think are the Communists on the committee, and I want you to put that in the record; I don't want you to be going behind my back and, frankly, if you think I am a Communist, say so here and get it on the record.

MR. WOOLLEY: ... I told Mr. Jones ... that when I said that the Communists were supporting the production payment [program], ... this did not carry with it the idea that he or anybody else that was proposing production payments was a Communist....

The point I am trying to make ... [is] that if the Communists spend thousands of dollars propagandizing for a particular method ... doesn't it cause somebody to raise a question as to whether it might or might not be against our interest? That is the question, and it is not that you are a Communist-I know you are not-at least, I hope you are not.

MR. JONES: Are you inferring by your propaganda, are you trying to say that a bill that we introduced here was inspired by a Communist program? I resent that very much....

MR. FLEMING: Might I make a statement, Mr. Chairman?

MR. POAGE: [gaveling] This committee is going to adjourn right here and now, ... and I am sorry that anybody dragged communism into this, when it has nothing to do with the corn bill or the cotton bill or any other bill ... and I will not permit it to go any further.

MR. FLEMING: Just one sentence?

MR. POAGE: No; you can make it somewhere else, anywhere you want to. The committee is adjourned.

Then, according to newspaper accounts, Poage shouted, "But if you want to discuss it further, I'll meet you in the alley." In the end, some degree of civility prevailed as no confrontation occurred after the hearing: "The witness and Mr. Poage did not meet up after the session."

The tone of this hearing and its degeneration into accusations of communism raise some important questions about national policies in general and twentieth-century agricultural policy in particular. How can we explain such extensive economic intervention by the U.S. government at a time when this country was the preeminent promoter of free market capitalism? Did supply management represent an "antimarket" policy won by opponents of capitalism? Was this policy the result of a unified "farm bloc" able to impose its will upon the federal government? Answering such questions is essential for understanding the contours of twentieth-century agricultural policy, and why this policy was frequently so politically divisive.

This heated exchange between members of the House Agriculture Committee and Farm Bureau officials provides an important introduction into the politics surrounding supply management policy. As committee members clashed with Farm Bureau representatives, the divisions between producers of different agricultural commodities, particularly corn versus cotton, emerged clearly. Thus, behind the tensions and flaring tempers at the committee hearing lie important political conflicts within agriculture.

Southern Democrats were the most important proponents of supply management, but they could hardly be labeled as liberals, much less as communists. Yet they unequivocally favored the extensive state regulation of the market economy found in supply management policy. This policy preference was not based on an "antimarket" position, but it instead resulted from economic interests created by the vagaries of the market economy. That is, southern Democrats were merely working to protect the economic interests of the cotton producers whom they represented. By the same token, Farm Bureau officials tended to adopt the policy preferences of large-scale commercial farmers in the Corn Belt, also working to protect the interests of the particular farmers they represented. This early attempt at agricultural retrenchment, at cutting price supports and production controls, was led not by urban consumers, taxpayers, or even free-marketeers; instead, this push to "get the government out of farming" was led by certain farm organizations, such as the Farm Bureau. Understanding the foundations of such divisions within agriculture, then, is important to explaining the development, expansion, and contraction of supply management policy. Finally, this early attempt at retrenchment failed. Why did the cotton South defeat the Corn Belt in this battle to shape agricultural policy? A large part of the answer lies in the political power of competing agricultural coalitions. Ultimately, this book argues that divisions and coalitions within agriculture were the driving forces behind the formation, expansion, and retrenchment of supply management policy.

Supply Management Policy: An Overview

The broad contours of supply management policy are readily evident in the record of agricultural legislation, as shown in Table 1.1. This policy began as a response to the Great Depression of the 1930s, which hit agriculture particularly hard. During the depression, agriculture in the United States, and throughout the world economy, suffered from overproduction, declining prices, and falling income. Between 1926 and 1933, for example, overall farm income plunged by more than 40 percent, cotton prices fell by about 50 percent, and wheat exports fell by more than 80 percent. Many farmers, economists, and public officials at the time believed that this economic turmoil in agriculture was caused by overproduction. With the passage of the AAA of 1933, the federal government sought to stabilize prices and support farm income by restricting the production of agricultural commodities. This policy of supply management was a clear departure from previous agricultural policy, which involved little intervention into the market economy, and it endured for more than sixty years with few changes.

Price supports and production controls initially applied to only a few "basic" commodities: wheat, corn, hogs, cotton, rice, and tobacco. Peanuts were added in the late 1930s, and hogs were later removed. Under the AAA, price support levels were based on the concept of parity, which was an index of the purchasing power of one unit of an agricultural commodity. Parity was the price that gave agricultural commodities "the same purchasing power in terms of goods and services farmers buy that the commodities had" during the period 1909-1914, when agricultural prices reached historic heights relative to other prices. Price supports, then, gave agricultural commodities parity with industrial prices, based on the ratio of prices between 1909 and 1914. The Supreme Court ruled the AAA unconstitutional in 1936, primarily because of a tax on processors of agricultural commodities (for example, food processors). In 1938, Congress passed a similar AAA without the controversial processing tax. In this second act, Congress set price support levels between 52 and 75 percent of parity with those of 1910-1914.

From 1940 to 1954, supply management policy expanded beyond the boundaries of the New Deal. During World War II, price support levels increased to 110 percent of parity, providing greater income support to farmers. Supply management also expanded to cover a wider array of commodities during the war. Then, in 1954, export subsidies were created to help lower the price of agricultural exports, which had been artificially inflated because of price supports. Export subsidies, in the form of international food aid, became the third pillar of supply management policy, alongside price supports and production controls. By bolstering exports, these subsidies helped to reduce and therefore control agricultural surpluses. During this period, price support levels were raised substantially, existing programs (price supports and production controls) were expanded to cover many more commodities, and export subsidies were created to supplement price supports and production controls.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Politics of Food Supply by Bill Winders Copyright © 2009 by William Winders. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword James C. Scott ix

Preface xiii

Acknowledgments xix

List of Abbreviations xxiii

Chapter 1 Introduction: Agriculture between State and Market 1

Part I Creating State Intervention

Chapter 2 The Early Battles Lost: Reaching for Regulation, 1920-1932 31

Chapter 3 Winning Supply Management: A New Deal for Agriculture, 1933-1945 51

Part II The Politics of Retrenchment

Chapter 4 Shifting Agricultural Coalitions: Sliding Back toward the Free Market, 1945-1975 77

Chapter 5 The Decline of the South: Changing Power within U.S. Agriculture, 1945-1975 105

Chapter 6 Agriculture and the Changing World Economy: The U.S. Food Regime, 1945-1990 129

Chapter 7 The 1996 Fair Act: Changing U.S. Agricultural Policy 159

Epilogue. After Fair: A New Departure? 194

Appendix. Notes on Methods and Data 207

Notes 213

Bibliography 249

Index 265

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