"The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow"
Purple alfalfa flowers
Public DomainPurple alfalfa flowers

The farm owned by Major Major’s father prospers due to agricultural subsidies from the federal government. The concept of “paying farmers not to grow crops” grew out of the Great Depression, when President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1933. The U.S. had already provided price and income supports to livestock farmers starting in 1921 during the economic collapse in Europe due to the devastating effects of World War I.

The idea was to help farmers who were losing money by destroying excess crops, with the ultimate goal of artificially reducing supplies and thereby stabilizing prices. If farmers were willing to limit how much they planted and cultivated, the government would pay them subsidies to keep their business afloat. The Supreme Court struck down the 1933 act as unconstitutional, so Congress responded by passing the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act in 1938 to achieve the same goals.

Bales of alfalfa hay in Montana
GNU Free Documentation LicenseBales of alfalfa hay in Montana - Credit: Gary D. Robson
Alfalfa particularly lends itself to this kind of government regulation because the plant is somewhat autotoxic (poisonous to itself), which means that alfalfa seeds have a difficult time growing among existing stands of alfalfa. So it should be rotated with other crops such as wheat or corn (therefore, “not grown”) before the field is reseeded for alfalfa. Humans eat alfalfa sprouts in sandwiches and salads, but its primary use is as feed for high producing dairy cows.

Heller highlights the irony that Major Major’s father depends on an inherently socialistic program -- on a broad scale, farm subsidies transfer income from general taxpayers to farm owners -- yet opposes federal aid to anyone else because it’s “creeping socialism.” This sort of tunnel vision survives alive and well to this day among military personnel and veterans who draw their incomes and retirement benefits from the federal government, and retirees who depend on Social Security checks and Medicare to survive, yet take the “freedom-loving … rugged individualist” stance of Major Major’s father that “government is the problem, not the solution” and what the American people need is “less government.”