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Ag policy: in the past and into the future

Exactly 150 years ago, four fundamental pieces of agricultural legislation were passed in Congress and signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

These bills would shape much of American agriculture and the Great Plains, particularly Nebraska. On May 15, 1862, USDA was established. Less than a week later, on May 20, the Homestead Act was signed. Then, just over a month later, the Transcontinental Railroad Act was signed on July 1 and the Land Grant College Act on July 2.

All four acts created the foundation for the settlement of much of the United States and the development of American agriculture. It was clearly a pivotal moment in time for agricultural policy and for the United States as a whole. The legislation was also a product of its times. In the midst of the Civil War, a Northern Congress interested in the westward settlement and development of free states in the Union passed the legislation.

The three latter bills all provided federal lands as an incentive for settlement, development and economic activity. Land was distributed through the Homestead Act to settlers who would establish agricultural operations. Land was also distributed to the railroads to sell and fund the building of the transcontinental railroad. And, land was distributed to states to sell and fund the creation of land-grant colleges focused on agricultural and related instruction.

These land-grant bills all were passed in an era of agricultural policy described as the land distribution era. From the founding of the country through the late 19th century, a primary focus of U.S. agricultural policy was the distribution and development of federal lands. From the initial westward expansion of the original 13 colonies beyond the Appalachian Mountains to the acquisition of the Northwest Territories and then the Louisiana Purchase, the country spread out rapidly and had what seemed like an unlimited supply of land available for settlement and utilization.

Decades-long shift

The creation of USDA marked the beginning of a decades-long shift in policy from land distribution to research and education. As the frontier became increasingly settled and “closed” by the early 20th century, the focus was no longer on getting land into production, but on enhancing the productivity of land already in production. The Land Grant College Act, together with the Hatch Act of 1887 and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, created the three-part teaching, research and Extension mission of land-grant universities today, with a primary focus on improving the productivity and viability of agriculture and rural America.

The early 20th century also marked the beginning of a third era in U.S. agricultural policy focused on information and markets. Increasing market data collection and reporting, authorizing agricultural cooperatives, and focusing on infrastructure were all efforts to make agricultural markets more efficient and competitive. Many of the policies from this era are still in place and are still subject to further debate and revision today.

First farm bill

Finally, a fourth era of U.S. agricultural policy dating to the 1920s was formally ushered in with the first farm bill in 1933 and its focus on direct support for farm income. The first farm bill was passed at a time of depressed agricultural prices and low farm income relative to the non-farm population. The era of farm support programs continues today as well, although current policy discussions suggest changing priorities for the role of government in U.S. agriculture.

Through the past eight decades, the focus has gradually shifted from price support to income support to risk management, but the historical instability of agricultural markets and the increased volatility of recent years highlight the continuing role for supports for the agricultural sector.

Looking back, Nebraska has been uniquely impacted by the policy developments of 1862. It is the home of the nation’s first homestead and has the highest percentage of land settled under the Homestead Act in the country. It was the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad and is the modern headquarters of that railroad company.

With the additional contributions of the University of Nebraska as the state’s
land-grant university and the role of USDA programs and policies, agriculture in the state has developed into an economic powerhouse, serving Nebraskans, U.S. residents and consumers around the world with abundant food, feed, fiber, energy and environmental benefits.

Future policy

While there has been some debate over the years on the impact or even the judgment of whether these policies were successful or appropriate, it seems clear we would not be here to have the debate had these policies not been implemented. Having seen the profound impacts of these historical policies on the development of Nebraska over the past 150 years, it is intriguing to imagine what policy discussions today might mean for the future.

Could there be a set of policies debated today that could have such a fundamental impact on the country, the region or the state over the next 150 years? If so, it clearly won’t happen as quickly or as succinctly as it did 150 years ago. In 1862, all four pieces of legislation were passed in less than two months’ time with less than 20 pages of text. That’s a testament to impact and efficiency that is likely to withstand any current or future policy debate.

Lubben is an Extension public policy specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

This article published in the May, 2012 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.