Coming after a winter of steadily falling prices, the Administration's latest model farm program is understandably a marked change from past versions. The optimism that garnished last year's announcement of Secretary Benson's "flexible parity" program is missing from the latest blurbs. As Benson himself told the House Agriculture Committee last week, the new program has very limited objectives: a short-term easing of the problem of over-production and a new approach to disposal of surpluses.
The heart of the measure is the so-called soil bank, through which the government would pay farmers for taking land out of production and putting it into soil-building grasses or leaving it fallow. On paper, this seems like the panacea Benson has so urgently sought during the past three years. Like most panaceas, however, its chances of working are slim.
In the unlikely event that government officials can persuade farmers to let land lie idle, there is no assurance that the farmers won't simply grow more on their remaining acres. The fertility of midwestern soil and the remarkable improvements in fertilizers mean that, with intensified cultivation, farm production could rise to compensate for what is deferred into the soil bank. When the same plan was tried in the New Deal days, it proved useless in combatting surpluses.
All this notwithstanding, there are several measures in the Benson program which seem capable of lessening some of the current program's worst evils. Foremost among them is the drive to expand foreign markets for American commodities. Benson's recent trip abroad, taken to work out trade agreements, presaged an all-out effort to export surpluses. Any success in this, however, depends heavily upon Congress lowering tariffs, and only if the President pushes his announced program on tariff reduction will this part of the plan be feasible.
Another proposal to lower surpluses would place a ceiling on government support of individual farmers, affecting primarily the operators of large, mechanized farms who overproduce most. This would set right one of the worst inequities of the present price-support program and is another measure to which the President should give high priority.
Beyond these proposals, which merely nibble at the edges of the farm problem, there is little that the Administration can do to end the overall muddle. The government's impotence stems partially from the problem itself: there is simply no way to dispose of surpluses quickly and cheaply and still keep up farm prices. Another cause of impotence, however, is the Administration's reluctance to increase the government's loan program on behalf of those farmers who most need help, the relatively inefficient and marginal producers. To them, amounting to one-third of the agricultural population, the Benson program offers little hope.
In contrast to past programs, however, the latest one seems a great improvement. With some justice Republican policymakers can blame previous administrations for their present predicament, since the surpluses are mostly Democratic surpluses. This, however, does not relieve them of responsibility for trying to stem overproduction and to aid distressed agricultural areas. In making the attempt, Benson has shown that, despite his optimism, he realizes that the farm problem can be attacked only on a short-term basis. Any farm policy that claims to be a cure-all is likely to be a lemon.