THE SOIL BANK: A $700 Million Failure?

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The basic argument against the soil bank is that it is failing to reduce production. By pouring on the fertilizer, planting the rows closer together and cultivating more intensively, farmers are producing almost as much as before. For 1957, the U.S. signed up 233,453 farmers to take 12,784,968 acres of wheat out of production in return for $230,974,475 in payments. This should have cut output 20%, but the now ripening winter-seeded wheat crop (the bulk of the crop) is expected to be 703 million bu., only 4% under the 1956 total of 734 million. Moreover, per-acre yields of 22.5 bu. (v. 18.6 average for the past ten years) will break all records.

Some experts in the Agriculture Department believe that without the bank wheat production would be far higher, especially with rains in the old dust-bowl area. But the truth is that any surplus production avoided in wheat is turning up in rye, oats, grain sorghums or other crops, as farmers put their idle acreage into uncontrolled crops. One thing the soil bank once more proved was that, barring police-state controls, farmers will always outsmart bureaucrats. This year, for example, most farmers gave the soil bank their poorest acres, keeping their best for their price-supported crops. This was legal, if the payment reflected the poor quality of the land. Often it did not. Many farmers plowed up pastureland and planted crops, offsetting any production cutback.

Last week there were still some Agriculture Department officials and Congressmen who said that if its operation could be improved the soil bank might yet do some good. Secretary Benson himself argued that the bank should be allowed to operate for at least one full year in order to have a fair trial. But unless it was cleaned up soon, the bank was fast joining the list of discredited agricultural panaceas. For political reasons the Senate is almost certain to restore most of the cuts. The House will probably go along at some compromise figure, if for no other reason than to have some federal farm handout operating in the 1958 congressional election campaign.

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