THE SOIL BANK: A $700 Million Failure?

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WHEN Congress last year created the soil bank, it hoped that by paying farmers to take land out of cultivation of price-supported crops a big bite would be taken out of farm surpluses. Both parties were so sure the bank was a good thing that they endorsed it in their platforms, even quarreled over who thought it up in the first place. A fortnight ago, as it appeared that the soil bank this year would cost more than $700 million, the House voted to eliminate $500 million in funds requested to operate the soil bank in 1958, in effect killing the bank if the action stands. Said California's Democratic Congressman B. F. Sisk, who represents a prosperous farming district and who voted for the bank last year: "The soil bank is a demonstrated failure."

The soil bank was a compromise from the start. After campaigning for years to get rid of costly, futile, surplus-accumulating price supports, Agriculture Secretary Ezra Benson was forced in pre-election 1956 to settle for much less flexibility in price-support levels than he wanted. Reluctantly he and the Administration adopted the soil bank, a three-year program of paying farmers to reduce production, with the hope that after 1959 surpluses would be gone, and farmers could get back to a free market. In its favor were plausible arguments about conserving the soil, preventing erosion, etc. But even before the law was passed, politicians went to work to convert the bank into an election-year bonanza. Benson did not v/ant to begin the bank until 1957, but Congress, its eyes on November, ordered him to start dishing out the millions in 1956. The result was that the Government paid out some $260 million last year to farmers to take land out of production often after farmers had already tried to grow a crop on it and failed, either through natural causes such as drought, hailstorms or insect infestation, or by sheer neglect. To nobody's surprise, 1956 farm production set new records.

Much of the opposition to the soil bank is based on the charge that it is highly partial in whom it helps. Apart from the relatively unimportant conservation-reserve phase, the benefits are confined to producers of the five price-supported crops—wheat, corn, cotton, rice and tobacco. Such crops account for only 23% of total farm income—leaving the producers of the other 77% totally outside the benefits of the price support or soil-bank pro grams. The soil bank has turned out to be a money bank for the corn belt and Great Plains wheat states, plus a few specialized cotton and tobacco districts, leaving relatively little for most Southeast, Middle Atlantic, Northeast and West Coast areas. Kansas soil-bank payments this year will average $736.47 per farm v. $24.96 for Virginia, only $1.37 for New Hampshire.

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