The Soil Bank Program was conceived in the early 1950s when grain storage facilities full of crop surpluses dotted rural America. Surpluses lowered prices and reduced farm income, and a program was needed to stabilize the market. In 1956, Congress passed the Soil Bank Act to reduce surpluses by lowering acres of the major crops, thus keeping production in line with demand, and to encourage conservation of soil, water, and forest resources. Spring and winter wheat, corn, grain sorghum, and cotton were the majors crops targeted for reduction in the Great Plains.
One part of the program, acreage reserve, was a temporary measure to reduce surpluses by making cash payments for crops taken out of production. These yearly set-aside acres were left idle and could not be cropped, hayed, or pastured. The program also included a voluntary conservation effort, often referred to as the Soil Bank, which was a longterm process aimed at diverting crop production land to conservation uses.
Under the Soil Bank Program, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASC) entered into three- to ten-year contracts with landowners to set aside planted acres. The farmers received in return an annual payment based on the quality of the land (average payment was around $12 per acre). They agreed to maintain the land in an approved conservation practice (predominantly grass in the Great Plains) and not harvest a crop, cut timber or hay, or graze the area. Nearly 29 million acres were placed in the Soil Bank program, the majority of which were located in the Great Plains. Texas and North Dakota had the highest participation in the program, putting aside as much as 10 percent of their total cropland. More than 300,000 contracts with an annual payment exceeding $300 million occurred in some years.
The Soil Bank provided a guaranteed, riskfree farm income with little work. Because the amount of acres that could be contracted was not limited, the program had negative social and economic effects on many parts of the Plains. Decreased agricultural production resulted in reduced crop handling services and processing activities. Landowners in the Soil Bank Program often moved outside the area, taking along spendable income, or sometimes competed for off-farm employment. Local resentment developed against Soil Bank farmers who retired all their land and received payment for doing nothing. The positive impacts included crop surplus reduction, conservation of soil and water, and development of wildlife habitat.
Edward J. Deibert North Dakota State University