Bob Bergland, a northern Minnesota farmer who served as President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of agriculture from 1977 to 1981, died on Sunday in his hometown of Roseau, Minn. He was 90.
Bergland worked at USDA for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service from 1963 – 1968, now called the Farm Service Agency. In 1970, he was elected to his first of four terms in Congress as a representative from Minnesota. In Congress he served on the House Committee on Agriculture's subcommittees for Conservation and Credit, and Livestock, Grains, Dairy, and Poultry.
President Carter tapped the Minnesota Democrat to serve in his cabinet in 1977 and Bergland had the difficult job of defending Carter's unpopular 1980 decision to embargo grain sales to the Soviet Union after the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Bergland played a key role in trying to focus the agency on challenges ahead. As secretary, Bergland commissioned a major report on the structure of American agriculture, "A Time to Choose.” He later served as vice president and general manager of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and as a regent at the University of Minnesota.
House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., expressed his remorse about Bergland’s passing.
"Bob served the Seventh District of Minnesota exceptionally before taking his farmers's experience and work ethic to USDA to make sure that crop insurance, rural development, conservation and research programs worked better for farmers and ranchers across the country," Peterson said in a statement. "I was fortunate to have visited with him back in August and am proud to continue in his footsteps in serving the residents of the 7th District. I send my condolences to Helen and the entire Bergland family."
During an oral history interview in 1986 compiled by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, Bergland said the structure study would have been a blueprint for farm policy in a second Carter term.
"What we would have done was target benefits. Instead of pumping tons of money into these big farms, which is what has happened today, there would have been a targeting."
Bergland said he unsuccessfully argued within the administration that the Soviet embargo wouldn't work. "We argued that the embargo won’t have any effect on the Russians. It won’t have any effect on the American economy because of the displacement factors. The Russians will get grain from the Argentines, and we’ll get all the Argentine customers. And that’s exactly what happened," he said.
Bergland also expressed frustration with the growing rates of U.S. grain production in the 1970s that he said he knew were unsustainable and were being encouraged by USDA research funding.
He also recalled clashing while in Congress with a Republican predecessor, Earl Butz, a leading agricultural economist who served as agriculture secretary under presidents Nixon and Ford and believed that market forces would take care of overproduction.
"Earl and I used to argue endlessly. I was in Congress, and he was an evasive witness. Boy, we used to go at it. I always believed they were sending the wrong signals, and he said, ‘No, get the government out of this business and it will take care of itself.’ Well, it didn’t, and we are paying the price for that now," Bergland said.
Bergland also took pride in a survey the department undertook, with support from President Carter, of erosion-prone land. Bergland was concerned that excessive amounts of fragile land were put into production because of the sharp increase in grain prices in the early 1970s.
“Instead of saying we need to appropriate more money for soil conservation service, we said, ‘We’ve found out what the problem is. It’s all this grass that got plowed down when beans went to ten dollars. It’s washing away, and we’ve got to do something about it.’ So we put together programs to deal with it,” Bergland said.
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