Where is the modern day Henry Wallace for USDA?

By Blake Hurst

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It's been a struggle for President-elect Trump to find a Secretary of Agriculture. It's been interesting to watch the succession of prospects travel to the various Trump offices, although it can hardly be said that the general public is following the stream of office seekers with rapt attention. Farmers follow this appointment closer than do folks in other industries: can the average convenience store manager name the Secretary of Commerce? Or high school principal name the Secretary of Education? Probably not.

The first Secretary of Agriculture was Norman Coleman, a Missourian, who served as Secretary of the brand new Cabinet department at the end of the Grover Cleveland administration in 1889. Coleman had been instrumental in the passage of the Hatch Act, which established agricultural experiment stations.  J. Sterling Morton, the third Secretary of Agriculture, is famous for establishing Arbor Day. The fourth Secretary, James Wilson, served as Secretary for 16 years, a record for any cabinet officer, and one unlikely to be equaled anytime soon.  The fifth Secretary of Agriculture, David F. Houston, presided over the implementation of the Smith-Lever Act, which established the extension service.

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Oh, let's face it. Secretaries of Agriculture have been important to us as farmers, but these guys hardly have the historical significance of Secretaries of State, Treasury, or Defense (War). With one exception. The most interesting Secretary of Agriculture was the second Henry Wallace, who was not only the most talented of agriculture's leaders, but also the craziest.  

Henry A. Wallace was one of the founders of econometrics, the application of statistics to economics. His statistics textbook was the standard for decades. He founded the Pioneer seed corn company, popularizing hybrid seed, establishing a great fortune, and helping to kick start the fantastic gains in agricultural productivity that have continued until today. He was Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, Vice President of the U.S., and, had things worked out just a little differently, he would have been President of the U.S. He was also convinced that he was a reincarnated Iroquois warrior, was a dabbler in any number of oddball religions, and was so naive about the character and aims of the Soviet Union that he was, in many observer's minds, a clear and present danger to the safety of these United States. After an unsuccessful, no, embarrassing third party run for the Presidency in 1948, a political race that, if not organized by the Communist Party, at least did nothing, absolutely nothing, that the Party would object to, Wallace retired from public life and began breeding chickens.  Wallace being Wallace, he was so successful at this late in life hobby that the breed he developed became the most widely grown chicken in the U.S.   

He also presided over the advent of the kind of farm programs we know today, with the passage of the Agriculture Adjustment Act (AAA) in 1933. The New Deal programs are different in their details, yet similar in so many ways to the farm programs of today. Of course, farm programs are why the farming industry pays so much attention to the USDA and its leader.  Our industry, for better or worse, spends an immense amount of time, energy, and internecine warfare on the scope and direction of farm bills, and although they are written in Congress, the Secretary of Agriculture is important in the administration of the programs.

My grandfather kept every piece of paper from a farming career that spanned 70 years, and his dealings with those early farm programs are still interesting today. In his 1934 contract with the Department of Agriculture.  Grandpa promised to cut his corn production 30% from 1933 to 1934.  In return, he received a payment of just over $1000, around $17,000 in today's dollars. The assumed yield in the program, by the way, was 43 bushels an acre. Farmers received 30 cents a bushel for the corn they didn't raise, better than the market price at the time, which was 13 cents/ bushel.  

In 1932 and 33, Grandpa raised 33 litters of hogs. In 1934, he promised to cut that to 17 litters, for which he received $445, or $5 per hog not raised.  The AAA contract estimated a litter at just over 5 hogs. Back then, much of the land he farmed was pretty swampy.  The hogs ran free, and once a year Grandpa would hire folks from the neighborhood to help with a hog roundup, catching hogs and sending them to market.   

The AAA led to hogs being slaughtered and milk being dumped at a time when people were hungry, which was not politically popular. Six million baby pigs were killed in 1933.  Although the pigs were used for human consumption, the pig slaughter caused a political firestorm.  Here is Henry Wallace on the subject:

“Doubtless it is just as inhumane to kill a big hog as a little one, but few people would appreciate that. They contend that every little pig has the right to attain before slaughter the full pigginess of pigness. To hear them talk, you would have thought that pigs are raised for pets. Nor would they realize that the slaughter of little pigs might make more tolerable the lives of a good many human beings dependent on hog prices.”

There are themes in that 1933 statement about the welfare of animals that have come back to haunt us some 80 years later.  

The AAA was perhaps the most important part of the New Deal. Farm population in the mid-30s was around 33 million people, just over a quarter of the U.S. population. A program that increased farm income was vital to the performance of the general economy. During the first year of the AAA, farm income rose 30%

Of interest to this author was the American Farm Bureau support for the AAA. In fact, the law was largely drawn up by a Farm Bureau employee. The bill was written in 4 days. It was passed by the House almost overnight, but the Senate held up passage until 600 militant farmers pulled a judge out of a court house in LeMars, Iowa, and nearly strangled him because the AAA didn't go far enough.   After that, the AAA was seen as the moderate plan and was quickly passed by the Senate.  From introduction to passage, it took barely two months to write the first farm bill.  It will take a bit longer to write the 2018 Farm Bill.

By the time you read this, we'll probably have a new Secretary of Agriculture. He or she will be faced with low farm prices, although considerably better than thirteen cents a bushel for corn, a new farm bill to write, a populace that is generally convinced that “industrial agriculture” is one of the great evils of the world, the normal threats from forest fires and animal disease outbreaks, with the added spice of an administration that may not be all that concerned about agricultural trade or the renewable fuel standard.  We need Henry Wallace's brilliance, without his politics or his “spirituality.” The new Secretary of Agriculture won't have to deal with the conflagration of the Middle East, like his colleague at the State Department, or with our exploding national debt, like his counterpart at Treasury, but he'll have his hands full.     

About the author: Blake Hurst is a third-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau board of directors.

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