• U.S.

AGRICULTURE: Ezra’s Quandary

3 minute read

In St. Paul, Minn, last Feb. 11, Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson laid down a basic Benson principle: “We seek a minimum of restrictions on farm production and marketing …” Last week Secretary Benson, still firmly devoted to that principle, nevertheless moved toward more restriction. He established marketing quotas on the 1954 U.S. wheat crop.

No Choice. No such quota controls have been set on wheat since Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wickard fixed them for the 1943 crop. Benson had no choice. The 1938 Agricultural Adjustment Act, still in effect, says that the wheat-marketing restriction machinery must be thrown into gear when the wheat supply reaches the “crisis point.” That point is keyed to the prospects for domestic consumption and export of wheat. When this year’s bumper crop is in, the total supply is expected to be 17 billion bushels,† the greatest on record, 28% above the crisis point.

One factor in the wheat glut is a sharp drop in the export market. U.S. exports of all farm products this year are running 30% under last year. Chief reason: the tremendous shortages created by World War II have largely abated. This returns the U.S. to the familiar situation where protection for its own producers, including some farmers, keeps other nations from earning enough dollars to buy U.S. products.

Longing Eye. The next step Benson’s Agriculture Department must take into the wheat field is to fix acreage allotments for individual wheat farmers. Benson’s staff is delaying that step until Congress acts on bills that will increase the total allowed U.S. wheat acreage. If the limit is raised, the acreage cuts (which would average 30% under the present limit) would not be so severe. After the department sets farm-by-farm allotments, wheat farmers will vote on whether they want the quotas. If two-thirds approve, all wheat grown on allotted acreage will be supported at 90% of parity. If more than one-third vote no (which is considered highly unlikely), there will be no quotas, and supports will drop to 50% of parity.

The wheat-quota decision is only one instance in which Secretary Benson has been forced to sacrifice principle. He is the victim of an ever-mounting headache created by high, rigid price supports. The supports encourage farmers to overproduce; overproduction menaces prices; falling prices lead to more support and/or quota restrictions on production. Because of falling prices and the demands of dairy farmers, Benson continued dairy price supports at 90% of parity. As a result of the drought in the Southwest, he moved in to hold up the cattle market. To prevent a glut in cotton, he will almost certainly have to set acreage and marketing controls on the 1954 crop.

While Ezra Taft Benson still has a longing eye on the free-market goal, the weather, declining exports and an inherited farm program (which the Eisenhower Administration has made no move to change) are pushing him rapidly in the other direction.

† Enough to fill a train of grain cars extending from the U.S. to Pakistan.

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