U.S. Congress Revamps Farm Policy

Through the Food Security Act of 1985, the U.S. government instituted conservation measures designed to reduce soil erosion, prevent an overabundance of grain crops, and protect wetlands.

Summary of Event

The Food Security Act (FSA) of 1985 created the largest change in farm-subsidy programs since the middle of the twentieth century. Prior to the act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Department of Agriculture, U.S. (USDA) estimated that 3.1 billion tons of soil were eroding annually on approximately 420 million acres of cropland, and 3.7 million acres of land were being converted annually from pasture and wetlands to cropland. Under the FSA, agricultural producers could be denied farm benefits for implementing improper land-use practices on cropland and noncropland. The objectives of the law were to reduce the increasing problems of sedimentation and water and wind erosion, to enhance water quality and habitat for fish and wildlife populations, to protect the long-term ability to produce food and fiber resources, to reduce the supply of grain crops, and to provide income to farmers. Food Security Act (1985)
Conservation;natural resources
Farm Act (1985)
[kw]U.S. Congress Revamps Farm Policy (Dec. 23, 1985)
[kw]Congress Revamps Farm Policy, U.S. (Dec. 23, 1985)
[kw]Revamps Farm Policy, U.S. Congress (Dec. 23, 1985)
[kw]Farm Policy, U.S. Congress Revamps (Dec. 23, 1985)
[kw]Policy, U.S. Congress Revamps Farm (Dec. 23, 1985)
Food Security Act (1985)
Conservation;natural resources
Farm Act (1985)
[g]North America;Dec. 23, 1985: U.S. Congress Revamps Farm Policy[05900]
[g]United States;Dec. 23, 1985: U.S. Congress Revamps Farm Policy[05900]
[c]Agriculture;Dec. 23, 1985: U.S. Congress Revamps Farm Policy[05900]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 23, 1985: U.S. Congress Revamps Farm Policy[05900]
[c]Environmental issues;Dec. 23, 1985: U.S. Congress Revamps Farm Policy[05900]
Helms, Jesse
Zorinsky, Edward
De la Garza, Eligio, II
Madigan, Edward R.
Jones, Ed

The “Swampbuster” provision of the FSA was intended to discourage the conversion of wetlands to agricultural land. This provision was considered an essential component of the legislation, as more than one-half of the wetlands that existed when the United States was first settled had been eliminated by the mid-1980’s. Protecting wetlands Wetlands protection would have significant implications for controlling floodwaters and providing recreational opportunities. Under the Swampbuster provision, farmers who produced agricultural crops on wetlands converted after December 23, 1985, would be ineligible for farm benefits, including commodity loans and purchases, subsidies, and crop insurance. In addition, benefits would be lost not only on converted land but also on all lands farmers wanted to enroll into the program.

The “Sodbuster” provision of the FSA was similar to the Swampbuster provision but focused on the conversion of highly erodible land to agricultural production. This provision applied to highly erodible land that was not planted with annually tilled crops during the period between 1981 and 1985. For land to be considered highly erodible, potential erosion had to be estimated at more than eight times the rate at which soil could maintain continued productivity. Farmers who produced commodities on previously uncultivated land with highly erodible soils after December 23, 1985, were ineligible for federal farm programs unless the owner farmed under a conservation plan approved by the local soil and water conservation district. Natural-resource managers estimated that implementing the Sodbuster and Swampbuster programs would prevent the conversion of more than 225 million acres of grasslands, forests, and wetlands to croplands.

The “Conservation Compliance” provision was developed to discourage the production of crops on highly erodible cropland where land was not protected from erosion. Under this provision, if landowners produced crops on fields with highly erodible soils without an approved conservation plan, they could lose their eligibility for specific USDA benefits. Soil erosion Conservation Compliance applied to land where annually tilled crops were grown at least once between 1981 and 1985; the provision was to apply to all highly erodible land in annual crop production by 1990.

The Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) administered the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provided for in the FSA with the intention of converting up to 45 million acres of highly erodible farmland to permanent cover. Federal officials hoped that this program would reduce soil erosion by 760 million tons, stream sedimentation by in excess of 200 million tons, pesticide use by 61 million pounds, and fertilizer use by approximately 1.4 million tons annually. Specific objectives of the CRP were to assist in controlling soil erosion, reduce surplus crop production, improve water quality, and provide wildlife habitat.

Under the CRP, landowners would submit bids through the ASCS to establish ten-year contracts with the USDA. While under contract, landowners received annual rental payments for converting highly erodible cropland to permanent vegetative cover for the duration of the contracts. Participants in the program were required to establish permanent vegetative cover (grasses, legumes, forest plantations, field windbreaks, shallow-water areas, or a combination of these practices) as quickly as possible. Approximately one-half the cost was shared by the USDA. In some states, additional funds were available to farmers for developing selected permanent cover on CRP lands for wildlife species.


By implementing the conservation provisions of the 1985 FSA, the USDA was able to provide economic benefits to landowners and to conserve natural resources on agricultural lands. These programs would produce large-scale changes in the composition of agricultural landscapes in the United States by the early 1990’s.

In the first year under the 1985 FSA, from March, 1986, through the fourth sign-up in February, 1987, nearly 18 million acres were enrolled in the CRP alone. One year later, more than 25 million acres had been enrolled. Food Security Act (1985)
Conservation;natural resources
Farm Act (1985)

Further Reading

  • Berner, Alfred. “The 1985 Farm Act and Its Implications for Wildlife.” In Audubon Wildlife Reports 1988/1989, edited by T. Chandler and L. Labate. New York: Audubon Society and Academic Press, 1989. Presents a thorough discussion of the act, its implications for natural resources, and the administration of its provisions. Includes an excellent list of references on past farm set-aside programs and their impacts on wildlife populations.
  • Bjerke, Keith. “An Overview of the Agricultural Resources Conservation Program.” In The Conservation Reserve: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, edited by Linda Joyce, John Mitchell, and Melvin Skold. Fort Collins, Colo.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1991. Discusses the history of the CRP and cites specific examples of its impact on the reduction of soil erosion.
  • Chapman, E. Wayne. “Rationale and Legislation for the Creation of the Conservation Reserve Program.” In Impacts of the Conservation Reserve Program in the Great Plains, edited by John Mitchell. Fort Collins, Colo.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1988. Provides an overview of the events that led to the FSA and a discussion of the individuals who were instrumental in the legislation. Excellent resource for individuals interested in the conservation implications of the Farm Bill.
  • Hayden, F. Gregory. “Wetlands Provisions in the 1985 and 1990 Farm Bills.” Journal of Economic Issues 24 (June, 1990): 575-587. Discusses the importance and future of the Swampbuster provision and its implications in protecting wetlands.
  • Kurzejeski, Eric, Loren Burger, Jr., M. Monson, and Robert Lenkner. “Wildlife Conservation Attitudes and Land Use Intentions of Conservation Reserve Program Participants in Missouri.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 20 (Fall, 1992): 253-259. Represents one of few attempts to predict and quantify the future of CRP lands when contracts expire. Notes significant implications for administering agricultural land-retirement programs.
  • Olson, Richard K., and Thomas A. Lyson, eds. Under the Blade: The Conversion of Agricultural Landscapes. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Collection of essays discusses patterns and consequences of land-use policy making in the United States.
  • Mangun, William R., and Daniel H. Henning. Managing the Environmental Crisis: Incorporating Competing Values in Natural Resource Administration. 2d ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999. Provides a comprehensive examination of natural resource policy issues. Includes discussion of the CRP.
  • Payne, Neil, and Fred Bryant. Techniques for Wildlife Habitat Management of Uplands. San Francisco: McGraw-Hill, 1994. Presents an overview of the Food Security Act and its implications for wildlife habitat and populations. Good technical reference on how upland ecosystems can be managed for a diversity of wildlife species.
  • Schenck, Eric, and Lonnie Williamson. “Conservation Reserve Program Effects on Wildlife and Recreation.” In The Conservation Reserve: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, edited by Linda Joyce, John Mitchell, and Melvin Skold. Fort Collins, Colo.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1991. Presents a comprehensive discussion of how wildlife populations and wildlife-related recreational opportunities can be enhanced through the enrollment of lands into the CRP. Explains how management practices on CRP lands may affect recreational opportunities and wildlife populations.

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