May 2, 2024


The Iron Farm Bill

Agricultural policy coalitions in the age of climate crisis

Agriculture directly accounts for 10 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions.1 These emissions, which do not include onsite fossil-fuel use, come from soil and manure management and the digestive processes of ruminants, mostly cattle. Worse, there is a substantial “carbon opportunity cost” to keeping land in crops when it could instead be turned into forest, a powerful carbon sink.2 Consider that less than 10 percent of the US’s 90 million corn acres directly feed its people. After subtracting exports, the remaining 70 million acres or so are split about evenly between animal feed and ethanol for blending with gasoline.3 In a country overrun with calories, it is evident that there is room to reduce crop acreage and increase woodland coverage, delivering a double climate benefit. 

The prospects for anything like this happening, however, are slim. Commodity crop associations and their Republican allies are currently seeking to repurpose $20 billion designated for “climate-smart” agriculture in the Biden Administration’s landmark climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act.4 Glenn Thompson, the Republican Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, recently described the funds as “riddled with climate sideboards” and called for them to be shifted “toward programs and policies that allow the original conservationists—farmers—to continue to make local decisions that work for them.”5 By absorbing IRA money into the farm bill while dropping the climate goals, Republicans can kill two birds with one stone. They can make funding available for popular, non-climate conservation programs that pay farmers to engage in practices they would likely undertake anyway, while creating budgetary room for what they really want to do: raise “reference prices” to enhance commodity subsidies that primarily benefit large growers. Farmers enrolled in programs such as Price Loss Coverage are indemnified whenever market prices fall below the reference price. Hence, a higher reference price means a higher income floor and less risk.6 

Even if Democrats protect IRA funding, “climate-smart” agriculture so far appears to mean pouring federal money into often dubious technological solutions designed to sustain the dominant productivist approach of maximizing yields.7 This is in keeping with the IRA’s broader political-economic bent, which favors incentivizing the private sector to innovate and invest in decarbonizing technologies. Daniela Gabor has criticized this approach as “derisking” for business at the expense of public investment. In agricultural policy, however, derisking is nothing new. Since the 1920s, federal provision of subsidies and specialized credit facilities have underwritten farmers’ continued uptake of productivity-enhancing technologies by reducing uncertainties related to outlays for new capital investments.8 The IRA is already playing into a familiar agricultural policy script. 

There were benefits to this approach in the past, but we now face a climate crisis that demands a fundamental reassessment of agricultural policy. This is a profoundly structural question. The existing policy instruments appear ill-suited for climate goals because they were made by a political coalition oriented toward the ever increasing production of commodity crops and meat. Rather than continue this pattern, today’s rural agenda should be broadened, and it should rechannel a portion of agricultural subsidies toward a reduction of crop acreage in favor of reforestation.

Origins of the Farm Bill Coalition

The bulk of US agricultural policy is made through the Farm Bill, which is negotiated every five years or so by a distinctive coalition of interests. At the core of this coalition is a tacit trade of subsidies for agricultural commodity producers that serve farm state interests in exchange for food and nutrition programs that serve primarily urban constituencies in other states.9 This nifty political formula has allowed a vast government apparatus in support of agricultural commodity producers to endure despite the ever-dwindling number of farmers.  Today, farms’ share of US GDP and employment amounts, respectively, to only 0.7 and 1.2 percent.10 

The farm bill has proven a highly adaptable policy instrument. There is a certain amount of intuitive sense in combining government supports for both crop producers and food consumers, even if the constituencies representing these distinct interests are often at opposite ends of the political spectrum. It is true that the details of program design and costs are subject to constant renegotiation, that additional interests have crowded into the coalition over time, and that the larger political environment impinges in various ways. Yet the basic deal persists, providing essential ballast to navigate the tricky policy-making waters of a sector that will always remain critically important no matter how small its footprint looks in the macroeconomic data.

To understand how we got here, we can read history through the old political science idea of policy “iron triangles,” which refers to a mutually supporting arrangement of legislators, bureaucrats, and special interests constituting a “subsystem” of the larger political arrangement.11 In the United States, it is associated with the emergence of the congressional “farm bloc” and the American Farm Bureau Federation trade group during the early twentieth century, and its political ascent during the Great Depression and the postwar boom. Operating through the House and Senate agricultural committees, farm-state politicians of both parties united in prioritizing farmer interests formed the base of the triangle. Industry groups, especially so-called “peak” organizations like the Farm Bureau and the various commodity-crop associations, formed the triangle’s second edge. The same organizations also provided farmers with privileged access to administrators in the US Department of Agriculture, the implementing agency that completed the triangle.

Broadly speaking, this original agricultural iron triangle pursued two purposes somewhat in tension with each other. The first promoted the productive efficiency of American agriculture through technological innovation and capital intensification. The second was to sustain the character of rural America in a world economy of volatile commodity prices and relentless pressure to increase operational scale.12 Defended in terms of the “family farm” ideal, the character of rural America for many—though by no means all—also implied preserving traditional racial, gender and class inequalities. Public policy had two main channels: payments to farmers to smooth out fluctuations in their earnings, and large public investment in scientific research and technological development through the USDA and land-grant universities. 

The system was extremely successful on the technology and productivity side, but less so in maintaining rural character. In the postwar years, dramatic gains in yields generated agricultural surpluses that flooded international markets and piled up in government warehouses, putting pressure on the farmer payments formula. Capital intensification continued apace, straining the financial resources of many farmers and accelerating long-standing processes of consolidated ownership in the agricultural sector (which to this day drives many farmers out of the business). Suburbanization saw the conversion of much farmland into housing developments that helped draw increasing numbers of Americans out of agriculture and into other areas of the economy. Simultaneously, the rise of non-agricultural employment in rural settings, especially manufacturing, transformed the character of the remaining rural workforce. Importantly, the Civil Rights Movement challenged, if it did not entirely overturn, basic features of the old rural order.

High yields and new interests

The long postwar boom therefore saw deep changes in rural America and the agricultural sector. One fundamental consequence was the relative decline of rural voting power within the national electorate. Another was that suburban purchasing power replaced rural purchasing power in the macroeconomic imaginations of liberal politicians and policymakers. For Franklin Roosevelt and key figures in his administration, economic downturns could not be solved without boosting farm incomes to generate rural demand. But for John F. Kennedy and his close advisers, the problem of farm families’ spending power was not how to raise it but how to manage it without weakening the Democrat’s political coalition.  Rural voters were a constituency to placate just enough to avoid losing their districts to Republicans too badly.13 The steady reduction of farmers’ centrality to the national political economy was matched by a rebalancing of agricultural policy’s original dual mandate. The preservation of a particular kind of rural society gave way to a more singular focus on agricultural productivism.

Production itself was also changing and not only in terms of scale and capital intensity. Postwar trends drove a shift in the agricultural output mix, as meat and manufactured foods became increasingly important.14 The astonishing profusion of commodity crop production required finding new ways to upsell calories for an affluent consumer society. Meat was the economic solution to the historically unprecedented problem of large structural caloric surpluses. That shift has proven particularly significant for climate change. Conventional meat is an inherently inefficient way of making food for humans because most of the solar energy that goes into feed crops gets expended by the animals’ basal metabolic processes. In the case of cattle and other ruminants, that includes the release of enormous quantities of the potent greenhouse gas, methane, by a digestive process called enteric fermentation. Consequently, meat’s rise in American and, increasingly, global diets has significantly contributed to climate change. Enteric fermentation alone accounts for 25 percent of US methane emissions, while feed crop acres could have sequestered a great deal of carbon had they been converted to permanent forest.15

As early as the 1960s it became clear that postwar changes required that agricultural policy adopt a new political framework. Food assistance—in the form of food aid abroad to serve US foreign policy goals and antihunger programs at home to fight domestic poverty—became a basic political pillar of the agricultural state. The introduction of food assistance complicated the old iron triangle structure by adding a major new set of interest groups and constituencies: anti-poverty advocates who looked to issues of urban hunger rather than rural incomes. Yet this innovation was handled relatively easily by reshuffling agricultural committee assignments to give new voices a seat at the table, bringing antipoverty civil society groups into an enlarged coalition. The approach was formalized in the 1973 farm bill. Over the ensuing half century, this basic legislative framework for financing US agricultural policy would attest to a political formation that was, if no longer exactly a triangle, still durable as iron.

Agriculture for whom?

The farm bill coalition has lasted in large part because it is adaptable. New interests have joined the coalitional mix and the structure of commodity supports has changed repeatedly. Besides nutritional assistance, environmental protection has been an important addition to the US agricultural policy coalition—politically pregnant in the age of climate mitigation coalitions. New Deal agricultural policy had included conservation measures, but they were geared toward sustaining production. Their major advocates were scientists, administrators and forward-looking agriculturists concerned about American farming’s long-term viability. But after the 1960s, conservation measures, pushed by movement environmentalists, referenced environmental wellbeing as a good in itself, and dealt with issues such as the health risks to which non-farm constituencies were exposed by chemical insecticides and runoff fertilizers. 

Nevertheless, the natural resources economist Silvia Secchi argues that even these programs continued to play second fiddle to the goal of expanding commodity production.16 The programs were always voluntary, effectively giving farmers an alternative, countercyclical form of subsidy—restricting planting under a new sign when prices were low—while allowing them to abandon conservation practices when prices were high. This is one reason Republicans are happy to increase conservation funding with IRA money today—so long as climate goals, which would require long-term commitments, are kept out of the equation. 

From the 1960s, also, as the historian Sarah Phillips has recently argued, commodity support programs were liberalized—even neoliberalized—to subject farmers to more market discipline. The Farm Bureau, together with corn and soybean growers, favored this shift in order to loosen the reins of federal supply management policies. Since the New Deal, the supply management paradigm had aimed to maintain prices at an acceptable level by limiting production. With the postwar Pax Americana’s opening of new overseas markets, some farmers began to see supply management as needlessly restraining. That view was connected to the rise of meat in global diets because corn and soybean were the key feed crops used to fatten animals for slaughter. The Civil Rights Movement also played an important if unexpected role by weakening the power of southern cotton growers and their congressional representatives, who had previously exercised a great deal of control over federal agricultural policy in alliance with midwestern wheat interests. According to the sociologist Bill Winders, the interaction of these global and domestic trends empowered corn and soybean growers, leading to the end of supply management during the 1990s.17

As new forms of crop insurance have come to replace the old paradigm, private insurance has joined the corn and soybean-led trade interests.18 This has financialized commodity supports. Farmers must now be sophisticated risk managers, a circumstance that presumably favors those best schooled in financial accounting.19 Crop insurance has made the insurance industry a powerful new player in the farm bill coalition: in effect, the federal government has outsourced important features of its commodity crop support policy to private actors who get to enjoy lucrative gains. According to the economists Bruce Babcock and Chad Hart, it now takes two dollars of government spending to deliver one dollar of benefits to farmers—the other dollar goes to insurers.20

Agricultural policy has grown increasingly labyrinthine under these numerous interests. It now encompasses so many goals and constituents, many of them not directly connected to agriculture at all, that the economists Grodon Rausser and Harry de Grotor describe it as an “iron maze” rather than an iron triangle.21 The expanded purview has certainly come with some important gains. The Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, which replaced what were previously known as food stamps, serves more than 40 million recipients each month, constituting an increasingly important part of the American social safety net. Moreover, recent economic analysis shows that a supposed principal downside of SNAP, reduced labor supply, is probably baseless.22

Despite this heterogenous coalition, the essential feature of the original iron triangle remains operative in one key sense. So long as agricultural policy is routed through the House and Senate agricultural committees and implemented by the USDA—that is, so long as it is done mainly through the farm bill—commodity producers will continue to enjoy home field advantage, notwithstanding the real influence other interests have achieved.

Food assistance advocates may have won a seat at the table, but not the power to preside. Marcia Fudge’s 2020 campaign to be named the Biden administration’s Secretary of Agriculture is telling in this respect. Representing a large metropolitan area in several prior farm-bill rounds, Fudge was plainly qualified to run an agency with a budget that is 75 percent devoted to SNAP. Yet she was instead given the Department of Housing and Urban Development, while Agriculture went to former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, a veteran figure identified with traditional farm politics and its industrial agriculture lobby. This is one reason why the food scholars Gabriel Rosenberg and Jan Dutkiewicz have recently called for the replacement of the USDA with a Department of Food, which would lean toward food consumers rather than producers.23 That urban anti-poverty advocates continue to favor the farm bill arrangement might be explained by their belief that hiving SNAP off into a different configuration of legislative committees and executive agencies would expose the program to cuts or even elimination. The partnership with commodity crop growers offers protection.

The political longevity of the farm bill reflects the structural advantages afforded both to farm states in Congress and moneyed interests in America. Even if they do not control everything and must adapt to new economic and political pressures, commodity farmers operate within an intrinsically favorable institutional environment; those who would repurpose agricultural policy towards alternative constituencies remain their political captives. In the most recent study of farm bill politics, the political scientist Clare Brock has found that party polarization and the consequent congressional gridlock adds to this long-standing edge. By extending the policymaking timeline, only deep-pocketed lobbyists can afford to see it through.24 In short, while the agricultural policy space may now look more like a maze than a triangle, its new points of entry have not come with new exits. The players remain trapped within the commodity producers’ domain.

The surest way to do “climate smart” agriculture is simply to convert excess farm acreage into new forests, providing not only a carbon sink but a range of environmental benefits from biodiversity to cleaner water. New England offers something of a precedent: most of the farmland it cleared in the nineteenth century returned to forest in the twentieth.25 Crucially, young forests in the temperate climates that characterize much of the United States are particularly well suited to capturing atmospheric carbon and storing it for long periods.26 While there is little reason to exaggerate what can be achieved here, there is even less reason to diminish it. In the words of forestry experts, trees remain “without a doubt the best carbon capture technology in the world.”27 Several econometric studies have found that at the widely proposed benchmark carbon price of $50 per ton, the conversion of pasture and cropland to new forest would sequester 200 million tons of carbon annually.28 This figure is roughly equal to the current annual carbon sequestration rate of all US forest and woodland.29 Meanwhile, section 45Q of the IRA allows 12-year tax credits of up to $130/ton of geological sequestered CO2 with “enhanced oil recovery.”30

Commodity crop growers can be expected to fight any kind of acreage reduction agenda. There are signs, however, that their grip on power has loosened. The established coalition has noticeably wobbled in recent iterations of the farm bill cycle as partisan polarization, especially Republicans’ hard right turn, stresses the traditional deal.31 The continued gamble on political attrition in the farm bill process may be lengthening its own odds. Since the 2012–14 negotiations, Freedom Caucus-types have behaved as if they wanted to blow the whole thing up, demanding unacceptable cuts to nutrition programs and, now, a ban on the mailing of the abortion pill mifepristone. But the attempted IRA money grab is the main reason the current cycle has stalled, necessitating an extension of the 2018 law through at least September 2024. The old policy framework, in the words of the political scientist Adam Sheingate, seems to be suffering “decay.”32 The slow accretion of policy aims and constituencies may have degraded the coherence of the core bargain. The situation may also reflect a broader exhaustion of the neoliberal order’s programmatic agenda, of which polarization is itself a symptom. Either way, a “policy window” could be opening up through which the old farm bill policy feedback mechanisms can be replaced with new ones.

Here it is well to remember that farmers, especially the big ones, constitute a minority of even the rural population, and that reforestation is entirely compatible with what the agronomist and farm policy reformer Sarah Taber calls “working countrysides.” For instance, sustainable tree harvesting can be combined with wood product industries, including environmentally-sound commercial products that double as long-term carbon storage devices, such as mass timber and biochar.33 Public recreational facilities and associated tourism services offer another type of opportunity to allow a forested countryside to earn income in ways different from the current limitations of agricultural policy. The best bet for the environment, from a political economy perspective, is to aim to design positive policy feedback loops that build durable rural constituencies committed to real climate action in agriculture—that is, to create new iron triangles. At any rate, a climate-oriented agricultural politics will have to be creative in how it builds effective shapes of power.

This article is adapted from the introduction to a special forum, “Revisiting the ‘Iron Triangle’ of Agricultural Policy,” that will appear in the August 2024 issue of the journal Agricultural History. The forum’s essays cover in more detail many of the issues raised here.

  1. Environmental Protection Agency, “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks,” Reports and Assessments, accessed November 22, 2023,

  2.  Matthew N. Hayek et al., “The Carbon Opportunity Cost of Animal-Sourced Food Production on Land,” Nature Sustainability 4 (January 2021): 21–24. Also see Daniel Blaustein-Rejto, Nicole Soltis, and Linus Blomqvist, “Carbon Opportunity Cost Increases Carbon Footprint Advantage of Grain-Finished Beef,” PLOS ONE 18, no. 12 (December 13, 2023): e0295035,; Horst Fehrenbach and Silvana Bürck, “Carbon Opportunity Costs of Biofuels in Germany—an Extended Perspective on the Greenhouse Gas Balance Including Foregone Carbon Storage,” Frontiers in Climate 4 (2022),; Sophie Saget et al., “Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Plant and Beef-Based Patties, Including Carbon Opportunity Costs,” Sustainable Production and Consumption 28 (October 1, 2021): 936–52,; Yue Wang et al., “Risk to Rely on Soil Carbon Sequestration to Offset Global Ruminant Emissions,” Nature Communications 14, no. 1 (November 22, 2023): 7625,; Damien Beillouin et al., “A Global Meta-Analysis of Soil Organic Carbon in the Anthropocene,” Nature Communications 14, no. 1 (June 22, 2023): 3700,

  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “Feed Grains Sector at a Glance,”

  4. See the statement, “Inflation Reduction Act Leaves Farmers and Traditional Conservation Programs Behind,” by the Republican minority on the Senate Committee of Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Also see Meredith Lee Hill, “Rare Senate spat threatens farm bill push with House in shutdown chaos,” Politico, September 29, 2023,; Politico’s “Weekly Agriculture” newsletter for the week of November 20, 2023,

  5. Glenn Thompson, “Opinion: It’s time to get serious about revitalizing rural America,” 2/9/2024, Agri-Pulse,

  6. Raising reference prices increases expected payouts, which the Congressional Budget Office models as an increase in program costs. Those costs, in turn, must be funded by offsets to remain within the total farm bill budgetary authorization. By grabbing the IRA climate money and stripping the climate requirements, Republicans can get their offset while still funding the conservation programs popular with their commodity crop grower constituents. As Jonathan Coppess wrote recently, this move is something of a gamble. Under CBO scoring rules, Congress would be, in effect, setting money aside to cover the additional expected payouts. Yet if market prices remain high then the federal government will end up neither making income-support payments to farmers nor spending to address climate or other pressing matters.

  7. Matthew Hayek and Jan Dutkiewicz, “Climate-Smart Farming Is a Lot Harder Than the Inflation Reduction Act Makes It Sound,” The New Republic, August 2, 2022,; Jan Dutkiewicz, “The Comforting Lie of Climate-Friendly Meat,” The New Republic, December 14, 2023,

  8. Sally H. Clarke, Regulation and the Revolution in United States Farm Productivity (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

  9. John Mark Hansen, Gaining Access: Congress and the Farm Lobby, 1919-1981 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

  10. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “Ag and Food Sectors and the Economy,”

  11. Grant McConnell, The Decline of Agrarian Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959); Grant McConnell, Private Power & American Democracy (New York: Knopf, 1966); Theodore J. Lowi, The End of Liberalism: Ideology, Policy, and the Crisis of Public Authority (New York: Norton, 1969).

  12. Despite is mystique of timelessness, the “family farm” is a twentieth-century ideal that often bears little resemblance to the sophisticated business practices of actually-existing family farms; see Shane Hamilton, “Agribusiness, the Family Farm, and the Politics of Technological Determinism in the Post–World War II United States,” Technology and Culture 55, no. 3 (August 8, 2014): 560–90,

  13. This conclusion is implied, in my reading, by Sarah Phillips’s work. See Sarah T Phillips, “The Price of Plenty: Getting Farm Policy Right in the 1960s,” Journal of American History 109 (December 1, 2022): 596–620,; Sarah T. Phillips, This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

  14. William Winders, The Politics of Food Supply: U.S. Agricultural Policy in the World Economy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009); William Winders and Elizabeth Ransom, eds., Global Meat: The Social and Environmental Consequences of the Expanding Meat Industry, Food, Health, and the Environment (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019).

  15. Environmental Protection Agency, “Overview of Greenhouse Gases,”

  16. Silvia Secchi, “The Role of Conservation in United States’ Agricultural Policy from the Dust Bowl to Today: A Critical Assessment,” Ambio, October 27, 2023,

  17. Winders, The Politics of Food Supply; Winders and Ransom, Global Meat.

  18. After an interim, unsatisfactory period of direct payments supplemented with ad hoc and disaster payments.

  19. Shane Hamilton, “Crop Insurance and the New Deal Roots of Agricultural Financialization in the United States,” Enterprise & Society 21, no. 3 (2020): 648–80.

  20. Bruce Babcock and Chad Hart, “Crop Insurance: A Good Deal for Taxpayers?” 12 (Summer 2006): 1–3, 10.

  21. Gordon C. Rausser and Harry de Gorter, “US Policy Contributions to Agricultural Commodity Price Fluctuations, 2006–12” (United Nations University, World Institute for Development Economics Research, March 2013).

  22. Jason B. Cook and Chloe N. East, “The Effect of Means-Tested Transfers on Work: Evidence from Quasi-Randomly Assigned SNAP Caseworkers,” NBER working paper series no. w31307 (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2023).

  23. Gabriel N. Rosenberg and Jan Dutkiewicz, “Abolish the Department of Agriculture,” New Republic, December 27, 2021,

  24. Clare R. Brock, Farmed Out: Agricultural Lobbying in a Polarized Congress (Oxford University Press, 2023).

  25. David R. Foster et al., “New England’s Forest Landscape: Ecological Legacies and Conservation Patterns Shaped by Agrarian History,” in Agrarian Landscapes in Transition Comparisons of Long-Term Ecological and Cultural Change, ed. Charles L. Redman and David R. Foster, Long-Term Ecological Research Network Series (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  26. Paul Catanzaro and Anthony D’Amato, “Forest Carbon: An Essential Natural Solution for Climate Change” (University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 2019), 6,

  27. Calvin Norman and Melissa Kreye, “How Forests Store Carbon,” accessed February 7, 2024,

  28. Anne Sofie Elburg Nielsen, Andrew J. Plantinga, and Ralph J. Alig, “New Cost Estimates for Carbon Sequestration Through Afforestation in the United States,” Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-888. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 35 p. 888 (2014): 17,

  29. Congressional Research Service, “U.S. Forest Carbon Data: In Brief” (R46313), June 6, 2023, p. 5,

  30. Congressional Research Service, “The Section 45Q Tax Credit for Carbon Sequestration” (IF11455), August 25, 20243,

  31. Christopher J. Bosso, Framing the Farm Bill: Interests, Ideology, and Agricultural Act of 2014 (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2017).

  32. Adam Sheingate, “Policy Regime Decay,” Policy Studies Journal 50, no. 1 (2020): 65–89,

  33. David Roberts, “The Hottest New Thing in Sustainable Building Is, Uh, Wood,” Vox, January 15, 2020,; Alexis Neukirch, “Biochar Basics: An A-to-Z Guide to Biochar Production, Use, and Benefits,” Rocky Mountain Research Station Science You Can Use Bulletin, no. 54 (May/June 2022),

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