Farm subsidies is the term for a vast array of taxpayer-supported payments from the federal government to farmers and landowners to support agriculture. US Department of Agriculture subsidies can be classified into three categories: commodity, disaster, and conservation, each of which includes subprograms targeted at different needs within the agricultural economy. Since the 1990s, commodity subsidies have comprised the largest category of Mississippi farm payments, with cotton, soybeans, corn, livestock, and peanuts receiving the biggest shares. Oats, wheat, sorghum, and honey farms also received commodity support through loan deficiency and marketing payments. Sunflower and barley farmers obtained additional payments through direct and countercyclical programs. Conservation ranked as the third-largest category of subsidies in the state from 1995 to 2014. The Conservation Reserve Program represented the largest conservation program for the state during the period. Disaster ranked as the fifth-most-important category for Mississippi. The federal government paid the largest share of disaster subsidies to Mississippians through the Livestock Disaster Emergency Program.
From 1995 to 2014 Mississippi ranked thirteenth in the United States for farm subsidy payments, which totaled $8.63 billion. A majority of payments went to Mississippi landlords, while about a third went to farm operators. Critics of farm subsidies point out that statistical estimates suggest that the top 10 percent of Mississippi subsidy recipients controlled 85 percent of the actual dollars paid by the Department of Agriculture to the state’s farmers.
Farm subsidies in Mississippi have often been defined by struggles over racial and class hierarchies. Mississippi lawmakers’ adherence to principles of state control and limited government precluded any serious support for federal intervention in state agriculture prior to the late 1920s. Overseers of sharecropping in particular opposed any federal interference in Mississippi’s postslavery agricultural labor system. By 1932 mass “sheriff’s sales” of farmlands across the state underscored the economic woes facing farmers. In the throes of the Great Depression, Mississippians warmed to New Deal federal involvement in farm policy. In 1933 the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) paid farmers across the Cotton Belt to destroy approximately 25 percent of their cotton crop to reduce supply and raise prices. The AAA subsequently established an allotment system, whereby farmers contracted to plant only a set number of acres and in return received payments for land left idle. The AAA, like many subsequent farm subsidy agencies, allowed local control through AAA county committees. During the New Deal, elite Mississippi Delta planters garnered an unrepresentatively high percentage of the largest AAA subsidies across the South. Landlords often controlled county AAA committees, thus exercising power over payment distributions, and AAA payments often did not filter down from landlords to tenants or croppers.
In 1936 Congress passed the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, which basically paid farmers to place their lands in conservation agriculture. For example, under this bill, farmers received around ten dollars an acre to shift from surplus crops such as cotton and corn to conservation crops. Congress extended the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act through the 1940s.
During the 1950s the mechanized cotton harvester and expanded conservation subsidy programs exacerbated the economic hardships faced by Mississippi’s poor farmers by decreasing the need for laborers, tenants, and sharecroppers. The Agriculture Act of 1956 increased conservation subsidies with the introduction of the Soil Bank program. Many wealthy Mississippi farmers welcomed new conservation subsidies, but in the process tenants and croppers lost even more acreage to subsidies. As the civil rights movement spread across Mississippi, the issue of control over farm subsidies emerged as an important dimension of the freedom struggle. In the spring of 1965 black tenants and tractor drivers went on strike across the Delta for better wages, and in 1966 African Americans engaged in a sit-in at Greenville Air Force Base to demand food and land.
In 1961 the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) replaced the AAA and began to administer farm subsidy programs through elected local committees. In 1976, only 3 of 984 elected county committee members nationwide were African Americans: 1 of those 3 called Mississippi home. The absence of African Americans from the local ASCS power structure has been linked to the economic hardships faced by black farmers across the nation during the agency’s tenure. The ASCS’s role in the administration and distribution of farm subsidies meant that black farmers found themselves at the mercy of local whites for economic livelihood and physical survival. For many black farmers and tenants, civil rights in Mississippi meant more than voting rights or desegregation. Freedom for these farmers also meant freedom from a neoplanter class of whites supported by federal farm subsidies.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, calls increased to use farm subsidies for environmental purposes through enlarged conservation efforts. Congress offered federal payments in the Agriculture Act of 1970 to farmers who allowed hunters and fishers to use lands already in conservation. In addition, the 1985 Farm Bill significantly expanded conservation programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program, with expanded access to payments for lands beyond those identified as erosive.
During the 1990s both Democrats and Republicans attempted to reform farm subsidies. First, in 1994 Democratic secretary of agriculture Mike Espy, a Mississippi native, oversaw the reorganization of Department of Agriculture. In the process, the ASCS and other agencies were streamlined into the Farm Service Agency (FSA). Since 1994 the FSA has served as the local administrative unit for farm subsidies across Mississippi. In 1996 the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Freedom to Farm Act, which among other things sought to ease farmers off federal subsidy programs. However, faced with declining commodity prices in the late 1990s, Congress passed numerous farm relief measures that subsequently undercut the ideals of the Freedom to Farm Act.
Farm subsidies reemerged as a persuasive political issue after the turn of the century because of a declining agricultural economy. Bipartisan reformers lost key votes in Washington as farm-state senators and representatives rejuvenated farm subsidies. The 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act reauthorized numerous subsidies on agricultural products such as milk that had been abolished in the 1990s. Significantly for Mississippi farmers, the 2002 measure raised cotton and grain subsidies to even higher levels than those that had existed in the 1990s. Proponents estimated that the act would cost taxpayers $190 billion over the law’s five-year life span, and critics derided it as a step backward toward New Deal–era subsidies, unbalanced national budgets, and corporate welfare masquerading as farm relief. Supporters, however, noted that the rural economy had fallen on hard times and that small farmers needed help to survive.
Critics of contemporary farm subsidies in Mississippi have pointed to a number of inequalities within the system. Just like its ASCS predecessor, the FSA local control over the farm subsidies apparatus has engendered questions of racial and class equality. The administration of local and county FSA offices rests in the hands of local elected committees. In 2007 only 8 of Mississippi’s 236 FSA committee members were African American. Contemporary critics of farm subsidies have maintained that the continued white domination of the FSA power structure has prevented equal access to relief for Mississippi’s black farmers. Moreover, modern farm subsidies are based on farm size and production yields, not economic need, meaning that large, wealthier farmers receive a far greater share of appropriated funds than do small, poorer farmers.
Supporters of current farm subsidies maintain that Mississippi farmers must have government support to compete in a global economy. They point out that US farm subsidies level the playing field with foreign farmers who receive heavy subsidies from their home governments. Moreover, farmers contend that subsidies provide a safety net for producers and stability to the agricultural economy, enabling producers to present Mississippi consumers with a secure and modestly priced food supply. In addition, supporters argue that large, stable farm operations supported by subsidies lift other sectors of the local economy. Prosubsidy organizations such as the Mississippi Farm Bureau also contend that agriculture’s prominent role in the state’s economy necessitates farm stability. Farmers challenge that critics exploit nonrepresentative examples of subsidy abuse and have forgotten about the tough realities faced by the small family farms that benefit the most from subsidies. Finally, farmers are quick to point out that recent high commodity prices do not translate into high incomes for farmers. Dramatic increases in the costs of fuel, fertilizer, seed, land, and machinery have negated any increased revenue provided by high commodity prices.
Federal farm subsidies have undeniably enabled struggling farm families to weather hard times throughout Mississippi history. Nevertheless, New Deal origins and civil rights legacies remain and infuse Mississippi farm subsidies with deeper meanings related to economic and racial inequalities. Mississippians continue to debate the necessities, inequities, and realities of current federal farm subsidy programs.
- Andrew Backover, USA Today (12 November 2002)
- Murray R. Benedict, Farm Policies of the United States, 1790–1950 (1953)
- Zachary Cain and Stephen Lovejoy, Choices (4th Quarter 2004)
- James C. Cobb, Journal of American History (December 1990)
- Environmental Working Group, Farm Subsidy Database website, www.farm.ewg.org
- Gilbert M. Gaul and Dan Morgan, Washington Post (20 June 2007)
- Becky Gillette, Mississippi Business Journal (3 December 2007)
- Valerie Grim, Agricultural History (Spring 1996)
- Donald Holley, Uncle Sam’s Farmers: The New Deal Communities in the Lower Mississippi Valley (1975)
- US Department of Agriculture, 2002 Census of Agriculture website, www.agcensus.usda.gov
- Jasper Womach, Average Farm Subsidy Payments, by State, 2002, www.nationalaglawcenter.org