Now, when world food supplies are more uncertain than they have been for more than a century, the United States badly needs a national agricultural policy. While Congress and its agricultural committees are putting the finishing touches on another farm bill to replace the one expiring, it is not likely that we’ll get what we need this year, either. Instead, the 1990 bill is almost certain to be just another of the dozen or so patches on patches that our “farm bills” have been ever since the New Deal’s original Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1933.

In the 57 years since then, the agricultural world has changed almost beyond recognition. The number of American farmers has shriveled to a small fraction of the total labor force; U.S. farm production may now not only be leveling off but even about to shrink when good harvests are averaged with an increasing number of bad years; the early governmental concern with boosting farm prices has shifted to allowing them to sink so as to keep export “market share” and to prevent domestic inflation; farm exports, once of little consequence in most years, have become vital both to the U.S. economy saddled with a tremendous trade deficit and to the world’s food-short countries. including communist and emerging-from-communism ones. Agriculture has become thoroughly bound up with international finance, energy policy, interest rates, exchange rates, and inflation. Environmental pollution has been added to a worsening farmland conservation problem; food-demand patterns have changed radically both at home and abroad. Most important, world population has almost quadrupled in the last one hundred years, and food supplies are wobbly except in northern North America, southern South America, Western Europe, and Oceania. Agriculture does not mean “just agriculture” anymore.

From the 30’s through the early 70’s, farm bills were moderately effective in making a more orderly adjustment to the two trends of greater farm production/lower farm prices and a smaller on-farm population and labor force. In 1875, farmers and farm workers were each growing enough raw materials to feed and clothe four people. A hundred years later, according to the current Department of Agriculture definition of “farmer,” each was supporting about sixty at the American standard of living. (If “farmer” were defined more rigorously, this figure could triple or quadruple.) At the same time, the number of farmers on the farm plummeted, and the number involved in manufacturing and selling farm “inputs” in the marketing of food, fiber, and related services soared.

The farm bills may have affected these trends somewhat, but not much. Technology, however, has had an enormous effect. The agricultural technology of the second half of this century has been called “The Green Revolution”: acre-crunching machinery, hybrid corn, synthetic fertilizer, chemical pesticides, greatly increased use of irrigation, and other devices and practices the USDA lumps under the term “science power.” Without the Green Revolution’s whopping increase in farm productivity, a U.S. population of 213 million in 1975 would not have been remotely possible.

But was it all technology and “science power”? Is it likely, or even conceivable, that this tremendous increase would have resulted if, instead of the 1875-1975 century warming that came to include what some climatologists call the mid-20th-century climatic optimum, we had continued with the Little Ice Age that had begun in the mid-16th century and ended in the mid-19th? Or if the droughty 1930’s had been immediately followed by the droughty (and weather-extreme) 1980’s?

The underlying assumption of the farm bills was “yes.” So strongly were (and are) most farm economists committed to technology that when a climatological/agronomic report warned that bad weather could and would reduce crop yields in 1974, it only drew a letter from then Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz scoffing at the idea that anything could dethrone man from his technological supremacy. Mr. Butz called attention to a 1965 USDA report that concluded, “man has reduced variation in yield in both good and bad weather. . . . It seems logical to assume that continued progress has been made since that date, particularly in the use of fertilizers, improved cultural practices and . . . increased mechanism.”

What the secretary was really saying was that since the beginning of the Green Revolution, the thousands and millions of years when man was dependent on forces beyond his control, and especially on weather, had become hardly worth mentioning. “The pattern by which the future must be judged,” Mr. Butz said in essence, “is the last thirty or fifty years.” Reid Bryson, director of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, finds these years to have been “the most abnormally warm period in a thousand years.” Climatologist Iben Browning wrote in 1975 that “We have to look back 65,000 years to find a period as temperate as our own.”

The USDA’s first prediction of corn production in 1974 was 6.7 billion bushels, 18 percent above the year before. (Stephen Schneider says in his book Genesis Strategy, “The USDA confidently predicted a record corn crop in the U.S. in 1974 up through mid-July, despite the well-publicized difficulties farmers experienced in planting.”) Unfortunately, the 1974 weather followed the scenario of the climatological/agronomic report. Actual corn production that year was 4.7 billion bushels, 18 percent below 1973.

Even worse, 1974 proved to be the year that told American farm technology worshipers, if any had listened, that the mid-century climatic optimum and the Green Revolution it had made so effective was probably coming to a close, not only in America but all over the world. In the twenty years between 1970 and 1989, drought in the African Sahel became almost permanent; North American harvests were characterized by four droughts, each of the last three worse than the one before, and at least five regional crop fiascos; drought, winterkill, or other forms of extreme weather jeopardized at least six harvests of the four main food producers (the United States, China, the USSR, and India). At the most, only five or six of these twenty years were as free as the preceding thirty years from weather-related crop busts.

As of this writing, parts of the Western Cornbelt are even drier than at the time of the 1988 drought and 1989 partial drought. When Farming magazine asked Louis Thompson, the Iowa State agronomist and prime mover of the report that so failed to move Secretary Butz, “Is our weather more variable these days?” Dr. Thompson replied: “Heavens, yes! It is the most variable since the ’30’s . . . The variability has been increasing since 1974,” growing most pronounced during the last three years. He sees crop failure ahead.

In agriculture, we must go back to square one and start over. This new start should begin not with “justice for the farmer,” not with arguments about farm prices, not with shibboleths of market prices versus taxpayer subsidies, but with a set of principles.

The first of three affirmative principles is “strong families.” Even today, despite the technological revolution of the past hundred years, most American farmers retain elements of family management. Encouraging a complete revival of family farming should be the first objective of a national agricultural policy—not only because of the superiority of family values, but because only family farming is likely to be able to meet the agricultural challenges of the 1990’s and beyond (including probable food shortages). Evidence presented by Marty Strange in his book Family Farming makes it clear that even today (and despite propaganda to the contrary) moderately-sized farms run by families are more efficient than the larger ones run by corporations. The latter are comparatively prodigal in incurring costs. As the costs of farm inputs rise, as they have been doing and are almost sure to continue to do, the superiority of family farming in keeping production costs down can be expected to overwhelm the advantages of industrial farming (more governmental subsidies, better access to capital and credit markets, vertical integration, marketing superiority, savings from bulk buying and selling, and so on). Resurgent family farming may even maintain higher yields on a sustainable basis than corporate farming with its built-in bias for the short run.

“Free enterprise” is another principle that fits farming perhaps better than any other occupation. It should be implicit in any agricultural policy. “Enterprise” really means “work,” and “free” means ability to act in accordance with one’s own judgment rather than from overt or covert coercion. The meaning of free enterprise in farming, then, is close to the meaning of family farming.

Today, farming is not free. The low prices likely to result from government action require the lavish use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that promise immediate high yields, even though farmers are coming increasingly to see that they poison soil and groundwater (as well as the farmers themselves). Off-farm jobs, which for many farmers mean survival, also mean hurrying through activities they would like to take their time with. Participation in government programs may be lucrative but requires farmers to override their better judgment in planting what where.

Thirdly, we must discard the notion that “national defense” refers only to the military and its hardware. Japan’s national defense already concentrates on making other nations economically dependent on it, and on using the foreign exchange such nations so conveniently provide to buy some of their assets—and so influence their policies. Western Europe, until recently dependent on grain from North America (and, long ago, from Russia and Eastern Europe), seems to regard its enormous agricultural subsidies, which have made it not only almost selfsufficient in food but converted it into a grain exporter and U.S. competitor, as a defense against both the badweather famines it knew so well centuries ago, and the dependency it knew two decades ago. Brazil’s wholesale conversion of its abundant sugarcane into ethanol for motor fuel is national defense against an energy shortage, loss of foreign exchange, OPEC. Gorbachev may be coming to regard Russia’s military hardware more as a bargaining chip to gain access to American food supplies and consumer goods than a way of ensuring his country’s defense.

If agriculture is accepted as an instrument of national defense, a national agricultural policy should call for maximum production consistent with long-range sustainability and conservation needs. When such a policy produces surpluses, such surpluses could either be taken off the market to put in reserve, or converted to ethanol to reduce dependency on foreign oil—which the Department of Energy says would otherwise reach 60 percent by 1995.

There are also two “negative” principles that apply equally well to agriculture. First is “limited government”: we should severely restrict government involvement in agriculture—and, in the I990’s, farmers themselves may well be in the vanguard calling for just this. While early-century farmers clamored for a government-controlled floor to agricultural prices, by the late 1980’s the floor was becoming a ceiling. The price of a bushel of corn averaged $2.52 in 1979. Between then and 1989, the general price level rose more than 70 percent. But instead of following this rise to more than $4.00, the price of a bushel of corn dipped below $2.00 in the summer of 1989, despite the corn demand/supply relationship being roughly the same as ten years before. The main reason for the price drop was that government price support, in 1989, was $1.65 compared with $2.10 in 1979.

Finally, there is the necessary opposition to “universalist ideology.” Farming in Russia and elsewhere has been ruined by communism. The ideologies of “farm relief,” “progress,” “parity prices,” and “free trade” are only slightly less destructive. All shift the focus away from the individual, and all discourage the farmer from engaging with the unexpected. Even the generalization that reliance on “market forces” is always the thing to do is an ideology. A national agricultural policy cannot afford to bow before any “universalist ideology.”