The Great Depression combined with a terrific drought across the West and Midwest. Farmers were hurting. Crop and livestock prices were at all-time lows. So, the government paid ranchers and farmers to kill cattle and pigs and to plow under crops. I remember my mom showing my sisters and me the spot of land on which some of my great-granddad’s beloved Hereford cattle had been condemned — and then shot.
In an effort to raise farm prices, the government implemented livestock and crop reductions under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. In Nebraska alone, the government bought 470,000 cattle and 438,000 pigs. Nationwide, 6.4 million pigs were purchased — and destroyed. Meanwhile, farmers were paid subsidies not to plant, and even worse, to plow under millions of acres of cotton and wheat.
Meanwhile, the nation was starving. The Depression had destroyed not just farm prices, but industry as well. In 1933, over one-third of U.S. households had a member out of work and millions of Americans were experiencing hunger. The juxtaposition of piles of grain rotting beside railroad tracks while the nation starved has long haunted agricultural policymakers.
Fast forward nearly 100 years and people are once again standing in breadlines. As COVID-19 restrictions shutter businesses all across the country, 30 million people have lost their jobs in just the last four weeks — an unemployment rate approaching 20%. The decimation extends across the economy, from retail and tourism to restaurants and even law firms. No job is safe, explains Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton in Chicago, who says this is the “deepest, fastest, most broad-based recession” the country has ever seen.
As cars line up for miles to receive sacks of groceries, experts estimate that the quarantine could result in an additional 17.1 million people experiencing food insecurity. Food banks estimate an additional $1.4 billion in additional resources will be needed to supply food — an increase of 30%. And some individual food banks have reported a 100% increase in need.
Meanwhile, in pictures reminiscent of the Depression’s piles of rotting grain, we see farmers dumping milk into lagoons and plowing up ready-to-eat green beans, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers euthanizing hundreds of thousands of hogs. While food lines grow, America’s largest farms are destroying food. The shuttering of schools, restaurants and hotels has left large farms without their normal buyers, and the closing of large packing plants in a grossly concentrated industry means farmers have nowhere to send market-ready livestock. Food banks tell us that milk is the resource needed most at many locations today, yet Dairy Farmers of America estimates that farmers are dumping 3.7 million gallons of milk each day.
Sanderson Farms is destroying 750,000 unhatched chicken eggs each week. In a moment of candor, the company told The New York Times it was unable to raise chickens for charity. It is a business after all. Fair enough, but the destruction of food while Americans go hungry is something our policymakers can stop.
It’s time for domestic agriculture policy to connect the dots from farmers without a market to Americans in need. For instance, Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, and the American Farm Bureau teamed up to write a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The organizations recommend cutting red tape and implementing a voucher program that would allow farms and food banks to work directly with one another instead of relying upon third parties.
Regulatory barriers that prevent the direct connection of food banks with farms must be removed. Cutting out the middleman is crucial — it takes an estimated 60-90 days for foods purchased by USDA to be delivered to state food banks. This means the provisions contained in Congress’ coronavirus relief bill for food delivery will arrive too late. And all the while, milk is being dumped and crops plowed under.
In times like these, a two- to three-month delay is unacceptable. We must not repeat the mistakes of the 1930s. Our farmers must be given the flexibility and resources needed to get critical food supply to those in need. It is time for the secretary of agriculture to roll back red tape and implement a voucher system to let food banks and farms work directly together. Today’s farm surpluses combined with the need of many Americans give policymakers a second chance to get it right.
Erin Hawley is a senior legal fellow at Independent Women’s Forum, senior fellow at the Kinder Institute for Constitutional Democracy, and a former clerk to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.