The farm bill coalition that, for decades, has been a strong force on Capitol Hill, “has definitely frayed,” Anderson says. “The question: Is it broken?

“I’m not talking about differences between commodity groups, or regions of the country — I’m talking about the concept that we’ve had of the farm bill as an omnibus piece of legislation that has, at least since 1973, united various interests in this country to get farm policy done. 

“The key component has been the urban/rural coalition, where rural congressmen are intensely interested in farm policy and urban congressmen are intensely interested in nutrition policy, and they put all that together in an omnibus bill. That has been a really strong coalition electorally — a huge bloc of Congress that had a real stake in getting a farm bill passed that represented both agriculture and nutrition interests. In that sense, yes, the coalition broken down some.

“Can they bring it back together and mend fences between the two sides, or is the era of really large-scale omnibus farm bills coming to an end? I don’t have an answer.”

The purpose of farm programs is not as clear to non-farmers as it used to be,” Anderson says. “In 1933, there were polls showing the majority of the U.S. population didn’t support farm programs, but with the Congress they were very popular and it was very clear to lawmakers what their purpose was. There was a crisis. The prefatory material to that legislation is shot-through with language about the emergency situation and it was very clear about the need.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, the framework for farm programs had become ‘the farm problem’ — a sector that just couldn’t adjust the way it needed to and needed to have the government involved in a solution. You can argue whether that framework was right or not, but it was very tangible and it was something people could get their minds around.

“The farm problem may still be there in some form, but it’s not what it used to be. It’s not a problem of low farm income, at least right now when commodity prices are quite high.

“If you asked 20 randomly-selected people on the street why we have farm programs, you’d probably get 20 different answers. That’s a liability. We want to maintain these programs, because we do want to have this institutional structure in place.  I think we need to do a better job of articulating to the average voter the reasons why we have these programs.”