Dwight Eisenhower was elected in 1952 and told farmers during his campaign that he supported 90 percent parity prices through 1954. Once inaugurated, however, he went back to supporting flexible price supports.
Farmers continued to produce more than was consumed, and in 1953 and 1954 alone the government bought $1.5 billion ($11.45 billion in 2007 dollars) in surplus commodities. Despite the government buying surplus commodities and high parity payments, farm families were still making less than their urban counterparts. By the mid-50s, per capita disposable income for farmers was down to 48 percent of nonfarm families.
Eisenhower was able to get part of his program through – the flexible price supports – as a part of the 1954 Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act. In exchange for a system of flexible supports, farmers got the promise of increased export sales to needy, friendly governments abroad. Later the program was renamed and expanded by President Kennedy. [You can find more about what became the Food for Peace Act here.]
Better technology kept producing more surpluses, so in 1956 the Eisenhower administration pushed through the Soil Bank Program. The idea was that the government would pay farmers a fixed amount per acre for removing cotton, corn, wheat, peanut, rice and tobacco lands – the six “staple” commodities – from production. This land would be put in a “conservation reserve” for a minimum of 10 years.
In the next three years, 28 million acres were withdrawn from production.
In a sense, the Soil Bank changed Terry Schrick’s life. He was just getting old enough to consider farming as a career. But when the Soil Bank was implemented, “all the widow ladies that you could normally rent land from,” he remembers, “they were guaranteed what they were going to get per acre [by the government]. So, they went into that program.” Terry went into agricultural education instead.
By the end of the decade, farmers were disillusioned by the Soil Bank. They had taken out of production only the most marginal land and used the government payments to invest in new technology, producing more crops on less land and continuing to build surpluses.
There were still enough people on the farms that they had political clout. So, when a drought hit in the late 50s, farm groups were able to push through over $15 million in special drought aid. Cattlemen were even able to push through Congress a plan for the government to buy up surplus beef, can it and store the cans in new fallout shelters “to guard against food shortage in case of national emergency or disaster due to atomic attack.”