Farm "Counter-Cyclical Assistance"
CRS Report for Congress
Farm “Counter-Cyclical Assistance”
Geoffrey S. Becker and Jasper Womach
Specialists in Agricultural Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Congress has approved legislation (P.L. 107-171) reauthorizing major farm income
and commodity price support programs through crop year 2007. This legislation
includes new “counter-cyclical assistance” programs for grains, cotton, oilseeds,
peanuts, and milk. The intent of counter-cyclical assistance is to provide more
government support when farm prices and/or incomes decline, and less support when
they improve. In fact, farmers have, for many years, been eligible for various forms of
counter-cyclical assistance. At issue has been the need for, and potential impacts of,
another counter-cyclical program. This report will not be updated.
Farming often is characterized as a “cyclical” business with exaggerated price swings
that are destabilizing. Farmers respond to high prices by boosting output. However,
when prices drop, farmers are not quick to cut back production. They are more likely to
operate at a loss and draw down resources. Contributing to the unstable nature of the
farm economy are the weather, export demand, currency exchange rate fluctuations, and
the farm support and export subsidy programs of foreign competitors.
Typically, farmers do not view the eventual self-correcting character of commodity
prices and production with the same equanimity as economists. In fact, U.S. producers
of the major crops have asked for and received federal intervention – including various
forms of counter-cyclical assistance – to support their commodity prices and incomes for
nearly the past 70 years.
Between 1973 and 1995, a prominent form of counter-cyclical aid was deficiency
payments linked to target prices. Congress specified, for each major crop, an annual per-
unit target price (e.g., $4 per bushel for wheat). If, as often occurred, the market price was
below the target price, eligible producers received a deficiency payment to make up the
difference. This aid was ended by the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform
(FAIR) Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-127).
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Provisions of the 1996 Law
Under Title I of the 1996 Act, fixed production flexibility contract (PFC) payments
replaced target price deficiency payments. These payments were intended to provide,
over 7 years, a total of about $36 billion to eligible producers or landowners. The PFC
payments were not linked to either current production or prices. By design, lawmakers
intended that these fixed payments, along with the ability to make unconstrained planting
decisions, would cause the marketplace rather than subsidies to guide farmers’ production
However, the 1996 law did continue another form of counter-cyclical support:
marketing assistance loans. Producers could (and, under the new 2002 law, continue to)
pledge their stored grain, cotton, or oilseeds as collateral for a U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) nonrecourse commodity loan after harvest. These loans are based
on a per-unit (bushel, pound) rate.
In earlier years, these nonrecourse loans were set higher than market prices in order
to support farm incomes, and farmers forfeited the commodities pledged as collateral at
the end of the loan term (about 9 months). Under the more recent design, farmers can
repay the nonrecourse “marketing assistance loans” at less than the original loan rate
when market prices are lower than that loan rate. The difference between the USDA loan
rate and the lower repayment rate (times the number of bushels under loan) constitutes the
federal subsidy. In addition, those producers who choose not take out USDA commodity
loans can instead receive the equivalent subsidy as a direct payment, called a “loan
deficiency payment” (LDP). The federal subsidy (either a loan gain or LDP) increases as
market prices drop below the loan rate, and the subsidy diminishes as prices rise – thus,
the “counter-cyclical” nature of the marketing loan program.
When the 1996 farm bill was passed, commodity prices were relatively high, and
policymakers widely anticipated that the PFC payments, when combined with whatever
was earned from the market, would provide sufficient income to producers. Marketing
loans were set at relatively low rates so that they only would be needed as a safety net if
prices declined relatively steeply. However, by the late 1990s, major commodity prices
declined even more than expected, and generally did not recover to what farmers regarded
as acceptable levels. As a result, they relied heavily on marketing loan benefits, which
went from zero in FY1996, to a high of over $8 billion in FY2000 (the cost has declined
somewhat since then).
Congress determined that the “safety net” provided by the 1996 FAIR Act (i.e.,
marketing assistance loans and fixed PFC payments) was inadequate, and supplemented
the benefits with additional, emergency “market loss payments.” These payments, mainly
to PFC enrollees, added about $3 billion in FY1999, $11 billion in FY2000, and $5.5
billion in FY2001 to program costs. These supplemental payments also can be
characterized as counter-cyclical – even though they are ad hoc and not “programmed”
into standing law – because they were made (according to the sponsors) in response to
low prices and incomes.
The New Counter-Cyclical Programs
Nearly all of the numerous farm and commodity organizations that testified before
the House and Senate Agriculture Committees in 2001 requested that additional counter-
cyclical support be developed as a supplement to the current marketing assistance loans
and fixed annual payments. In response, the separate farm bills passed in October 2001
by the House and February 2002 by the Senate, incorporated new counter-cyclical
measures into standing law. Thus, Congress presumably would no longer have to debate
and enact periodic emergency ad hoc assistance.
The final farm bill, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act (FSRIA) of 2002
(H.R. 2646, P.L. 107-171), provides new long-term counter-cyclical support for grains
and cotton, by restoring target prices and deficiency payments, similar in some respects
to the program terminated by the 1996 Act. What are now called annual PFC payments
are replaced with fixed, “direct payments” to farmers. Both types of payments will be
available to producers with annual agreements with USDA. In addition, the measure
maintains marketing assistance loans and loan deficiency payments as they now function,
with changes in most loan rates.
The new law, which covers the 2002-2007 crop years, brings soybeans and the minor
oilseeds (e.g., sunflowers, etc.) fully under the support program rules that apply to grains
and cotton. In a major departure from the past, FSRIA redesigns peanut support to
operate like that for grains, oilseeds, and cotton – instead of the traditional system of
peanut marketing quotas and nonrecourse price support loans.
Under the new law, fixed payments and target price deficiency payments will be paid
on 85% of each farm’s base production (base acres times base yield of each commodity).
A farmer may choose, as base production, either the acreage used for PFC payments, or
average acres planted to eligible crops from 1998 through 2001. Yields effectively are
the 1981-85 averages, except that, for counter-cyclical payments, yields also can be
updated under a statutorily-prescribed formula.
A key difference between the new target price payments and those made until 1995,
is that the old payments were tied to annual planting rules (i.e., an acreage reduction
program.) The new system is not contingent upon such rules: payments are based upon
historical, not current, production, and farmers can plant virtually any crops except most
fruits and vegetables.
Under the new counter-cyclical program, the deficiency payment rate will be
calculated as the difference between the target price, and the lower average season market
price (but not to exceed the difference between the target price and the sum of the loan
rate and fixed payment). (See Table 1 for rates). An individual may receive no more than
$130,000 per year in counter-cyclical assistance.
Milk support would continue under FSRIA through government purchases of nonfat
dry milk, butter, and cheese. However, it has an added feature of counter-cyclical
payments. Dairy farmers nationwide will be eligible for "national dairy market loss
payments” whenever the minimum monthly market price for farm milk used for fluid
consumption in Boston falls below $16.94 per hundredweight (cwt.). In order to receive
a payment, a dairy farmer must enter into a contract with the Secretary of Agriculture. The
value of the payment equals 45% of the difference between the $16.94 per cwt. target
price in any month that the Boston market price falls below $16.94. A producer can
receive a payment on all milk production during that month, but no payments will be
made on any annual production in excess of 2.4 million pounds per dairy operation. All
contracts expire on September 30, 2005. (See Dairy Farmer Counter-Cyclical Assistance
in the CRS electronic briefing book on Agriculture Policy and the Farm Bill.)
Table 1. Loan Rates, Fixed Payment Rates, and Target Prices
CropLoan RatesFixed PaymentCounter-Cyclical Target
Prior Law2002 LawPrior Law2002Prior Law2002 Law
(2002 level)(2002/03,(2002 level)Law(1995 level;(2002/03,*
2004/07) *NA 1996-2002)2004/07)
Wheat, $/bu2.582.80, 2.750.460.524.003.86, 3.92
Corn, $/bu1.891.98, 1.950.260.282.752.60, 2.63
Sorghum, $/bu1.711.98, 1.950.310.352.612.54, 2.57
Barley, $/bu1.651.88, 1.822.214.171.1242.21, 2.24
Oats, $/bu1.211.35, 1.330.0210.0241.451.40, 1.44
Cotton, $/lb0.51920.52, 0.520.05540.06670.7290.724, 0.724
Rice, $/cwt6.506.50, 6.502.0502.3510.7110.50, 10.50
Soybeans,5.265.00, 5.00NA0.44None5.80, 5.80
* Reflects rates that change in some years. NA=not applicable.
Whereas the final farm bill ties the availability of counter-cyclical assistance to
target prices for specified commodities, other designs also were discussed. For example:
One plan would have triggered payments in a state whenever state (as opposed to
national) gross cash receipts for any of eight program or oilseed crops are forecast
for the year to be less than 94% of that state’s annual average cash receipts for the
crop during 1996-1999. Cash receipts would be defined as the national average
price times state-level production. Those who produced the crop during 1998-2000
would be eligible for a share of total payments (American Farm Bureau Federation).
Another would have established a “national target income” for each major crop: that
is, the national average annual market value of the crop during 1996-2000, plus the
annual average of any marketing loan benefits and market loss assistance payments
made during those years. A further adjustment would be made to account for yield
increases since then. Those who produced that crop during 1996-2000 would be
eligible for a share of total payments whenever returns (defined as the crop’s U.S.
production times the average price for the first 3 months of the marketing year) are
below the national target income for the crop (National Corn Growers Association).
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated the commodity support
provisions (Title I) of FSRIA at $98.9 billion over 6 years (budget authority, March 2002
estimate, FY2002-2007). This is $37.6 billion more than the baseline policy of simply
extending current programs into the future. The new counter-cyclical payments for
grains, cotton, and oilseeds account for $23.6 billion of the new costs (i.e., above
baseline). The peanut and dairy counter-cyclical payments are projected to cost,
respectively, another $904 million and $963 million.
However, such cost estimates are speculative due to the extreme difficulty of
predicting future market conditions, including prices. If prices are lower than CBO’s
assumptions, then costs will be higher, and vice versa. Some other analysts already have
For example, the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) at the
University of Missouri estimates that the total cost of the dairy program alone could
exceed $3.6 billion. That’s mainly because FAPRI projects significantly lower market
prices for milk than CBO over the 46-month life of the program. CBO estimates that the
average monthly payment rate over the 46-month life of the program will be about $0.45
per cwt.; FAPRI estimates an average monthly payment rate of $0.89 per cwt.
(See also What Is the Cost of the 2002 Farm Bill? in the CRS electronic briefing
book on Agriculture Policy and the Farm Bill.)
International Trade Obligations
The 1994 Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture (URAA) obligates countries
to discipline their agricultural subsidy programs and reduce import barriers in order to
promote more open trade. Under the URAA, the United States is committed to providing
subsidies of no more than $19.1 billion per year through domestic farm policies with the
most potential to distort production and trade.
The URAA contains detailed rules for how countries should determine which of
their programs must be counted toward their assigned subsidy limits (e.g., $19.1 billion
for the United States). Generally, however, programs that are tied to current prices or
current production must be counted (these are called “amber box” policies). Thus,
marketing loan gains, which rise when crop prices decline and vice versa, are “amber”
and must be counted (but only if their value, along with other subsidies, exceeds 5% of
the value of annual production of that crop).
On the other hand, subsidies that are not linked to prices or production, and/or meet
other specified criteria, might be exempted as “green box” policies. The United States
has classified its PFC payments as “green” because they are made without regard to prices
or current production. It is anticipated the fixed, decoupled payments in the new law also
will fall within the green box.
The new counter-cyclical assistance will be decoupled from current output because
the producer would not have to produce any particular crop now to receive the payments.
However, because (like marketing loan gains) the target price deficiency payments would
be triggered by current market prices, they are expected to be placed in the amber box.
So, they conclude, if counter-cyclical payments, when added to other “amber” subsidies
such as marketing loan benefits, caused U.S. spending to exceed $19.1 billion, the United
States could be in violation of its world trade commitments. Whether that would happen
is unclear, in part because of the difficulty of predicting future market prices, but also
because of the technicalities involved in classifying and valuing subsidies under the WTO
“Circuit breaker” language in FSRIA is intended to require USDA to keep trade-
distorting farm subsidies at or below the $19.1 billion limit. Questions arise about the
administrative, economic, and political implications of changing (i.e., reducing) benefits,
particularly after they are announced and/or awarded. (See CRS Report RL30612, Farm
Support Programs and World Trade Commitments.)
Some groups had argued that their own counter-cyclical policies could be designed
in a way that they would not have to be counted toward the $19.1 billion limit. For
example, if payments to farmers were triggered by low income (as measured by gross
receipts for one or more commodities) rather than by low prices, they would be exempt,
it has been argued. Others dispute this assertion, noting that it is usually low prices that
cause low income.
The new counter-cyclical aid in the 2002 law focuses on the “major” commodities
– grains, cotton, oilseeds, peanuts, and milk. These generally are the most widely
produced, but that still leaves much of U.S. agriculture ineligible for such payments,
raising questions of equity among commodities, and of the potential for distorting
production toward items that might receive more support (contributing to surplus
production). But extending such aid to more commodities, such as fruits, vegetables, or
livestock, also would have increased federal costs, or else reduced assistance levels for
the major commodities. Also, not all commodity groups sought such aid. For example,
the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association was among those that opposed most forms
of direct assistance, counter-cyclical or otherwise. And, the United Fresh Fruit and
Vegetable Association argued against any subsidies that would insulate fruit or vegetable
producers from market signals or would sustain or encourage production.
Another issue was whether a new counter-cyclical program should perpetuate past
patterns that tie aid to output rather than economic need. Farm programs, including direct
payments, marketing loans and the ad hoc “market loss payments,” have been based on
either past or current production by individual farmers, meaning that larger payments
have trended toward larger operations – which do not or should not need them, critics
argue. They add that if Congress intends to help producers in economic distress, then
such recipients should have to document their need. Others counter that farm programs
are not “welfare” but rather part of a larger policy to ensure that U.S. agriculture remains
competitive in the global economy (an assertion that critics challenge).