The Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide

The Farm Bill coverreview by Maryellen Sheehan

Between being a farmer with a longtime side interest in agriculture and politics and working for NOFA-NY, I’ve always felt like I should know way more about the farm bill than I do. Yet self-education seemed an eye-glazing enterprise too hard for a tired farmer to jump in to read about at the end of a day. I don’t know how I missed the two earlier editions of this work, but Daniel Imhoff’s (with Christina Badaracco) 2019 edition of The Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide is the book on the farm bill that sleepy farmers (and all interested citizens) have been waiting for.

Imhoff takes this complicated, dense topic and breaks it down into its components in a compelling and page-turning manner that caused both my husband and me to geek out with this book for several weeks. They start off explaining the basics of the farm bill in the most readable format I’ve ever encountered. It then launches into the history of US food policy before exploring issue by issue policy topics and reform opportunities like “Nutrition, SNAP, and Healthy Eating,” “Ethanol,” or “National Security.” Imhoff concludes with a more hopeful “The Future of Food Policy” before wrapping up with excellent footnotes and a stellar resource guide “Activist Tool Kit.” Arresting charts and sidebars tracing the startling and at times eye-opening ups and downs of American farm and food policy enliven the entire work for more visual learners.

What The Farm Bill’s presentation most reminds me of is the new sort of “explainer” podcasts, where each chapter builds to a larger whole, while simultaneously executing a deeper dive into one aspect of the Farm Bill. They can be read sequentially, but the chapters also stand alone well and can be read out of order, as they reference earlier chapters as needed. At different points in the past months, I even found myself pulling out the book to read a chapter again based on stories in the current news (checking again the chapters on “Crop Subsidies” and “Trade” during some heated tariff talks, and “Conservation” as the flooding continued in the Midwest). Imhoff is able to both explain the historical context in each chapter, while also tying in modern political and social issues and challenges.

Throughout this book were some truly staggering numbers. “On average, at least 10 calories of fossil fuel are used for every 1 calorie of industrial food eaten” popped out during the “Energy and Climate Change” chapter’s exploration of how energy is used in US agriculture (most of that energy use happening after the crops leave the farm). Or that the top four producers of beef slaughter control 82% of the market as just one of many examples of rampant market consolidation into fewer hands. As an organic farmer interested in sustainable agriculture, many of the issues in the later parts cover more familiar terrain— “Ecosystem-Based Agriculture” and “Public Health,” for instance. Imhoff, however, takes these more recognizable issues and examines them through the lens of how they are supported (or not) by farm bills over time, while making arguments over how the farm bill could do better.

I found the earliest two parts the most interesting, as they delved into the basics of the farm bill and then a fascinating history of the evolution of American food policy. What finally came home to me in these sections is a better understanding of the Farm Bill cycles, and that “the importance of the yearly money battles cannot be overstated.” Silly me, I thought that “mandatory” programs meant they were funded for the whole farm bill cycle (as opposed to the discretionary programs that face yearly appropriation struggles). Yet as “How Does the Farm Bill Work?” makes clear (if the last federal budget cycle didn’t), there are ways that Congress can defund mandatory programs that can even potentially permanently lower future program funding.

As he starts early on by emphasizing the need to constantly keep on pressure through yearly appropriation funding, Imhoff balances the challenges presented in The Farm Bill, by returning to its strengths and opportunities to make change. At least, he points out, we have a starting point for this conversation—a farm bill that while it may be dysfunctional, “still represents one of our best chances to create a truly vibrant food system.” Recent history shows that the Farm Bill has the “capacity to serve as an energy catalyst” and deeply change American agriculture (for better or worse), as it did in the 60s with the food stamp program, the 80s with a growing conservation focus, and in the 80s and 90s by switching from supply management to subsidy supports.

This isn’t a big book, but it’s dense in a good way, full of a vast amount of superbly organized information that demystifies the Farm Bill, its history and scope, and its language and acronyms. Throughout this all, Imhoff and Badaracco draw in modern issues and challenges, and weave the story of how this one piece of legislation actually threads together a huge swath of American history, ecology, food, and culture.

Anyone interested in agriculture or food, or who wishes they too were better informed on Farm Bill policy would enjoy this interesting book. By “interesting,” I mean that it was alternately eye-opening, disturbing, rage-inducing, and inspirational in a way that’s challenging to read, but definitely keeps you turning the pages. It’s a work that I am already using as a reference, and that has helped me feel like I have a much better grasp (and understand the constant fight and high stakes) of the Farm Bill and American agricultural and food policy and politics.