By Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture
I join the agricultural community across the country excited about the nomination of Gov. Sonny Perdue for USDA Secretary in the Trump Administration. He has a very good reputation within the ag industry and he has a strong background in agriculture that will serve him well in this important role.
This time of transition is an opportunity to look ahead, but also reflect on U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture that have played an important role shaping the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as modern agriculture.
One USDA Secretary that was extremely significant but has also been overlooked at times is James “Tama Jim” Wilson. Wilson was the first Iowan to serve as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and holds the amazing distinction of being the longest-serving cabinet member in U.S. history.
Wilson led USDA for 16 year under three different Presidents. He was appointed to the position in 1897 by President William McKinley and also served in that role for Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Prior to his appointment he was a member of the Iowa Legislature and later served in the U.S. House of Representatives. He had also served as the director of the State Experiment Station and professor of agriculture at Iowa Agricultural College, which would become Iowa State University.
While his leadership at USDA is certainly noteworthy for his record setting longevity, Wilson was also hugely consequential during his time leading the Department.
He served during a period of significant change within the agriculture industry. New technologies and expanding markets created significant opportunities and challenges for farmers. As a result, his focus was on making sure the Department was evolving and modernizing so that it could continue to meet the needs of the agriculture community.
Nancy Lee in The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa summarizes his time at USDA it in this way:
“In tenure and accomplishment, he set records that have never been equaled. The number of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employees grew from about 2,400 at the beginning of his term to nearly 11,000 by early 1909. The agricultural balance of trade increased from $23 million to almost $425 million; the value of farm products expanded more than 200 percent; and the number of farms grew from 4.6 million to 6.1 million.”
She goes on to add:
“His tenure was a period of modernization of agricultural methods. Legislation dealing with plant and animal diseases, insect pests, irrigation, conservation, road building, agricultural education, and agricultural export trade was enacted. America's national forest policy was firmly established. The activities of the Bureau of Animal Industry were developed and expanded. Experiment stations were established in all parts of the United States; farm demonstration work was initiated in the South; and cooperative extension programs in agriculture and home economics began. Wilson inaugurated programs in farm credit, expanded weather forecasting, mapped soil types, and reestablished the Morgan breed of horses.”
Clearly his leadership was tremendously consequential and has had a lasting impact on the Department that is still clearly visible.
While we are in a very different time with different challenges facing our farmers and rural communities, Wilson’s commitment to efficient management, responsiveness to the needs of farmers, and passion providing timely and relevant information can truly be an example for all of us fortunate enough to work with and serve our nation’s farmers.
(Source: Lee, Nancy. "Wilson, James "Tama Jim"" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 14 February 2017)
About the Author: Bill Northey is a fourth generation farmer from Spirit Lake, Iowa who grows corn and soybeans. Northey returned to Spirit Lake to farm with his grandfather after graduating from Iowa State University in 1981. He was reelected to his third term as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture in November of 2014, winning with 62 percent of the vote and receiving more votes than any other candidate in the state. As Secretary, Northey has committed to traveling to each of Iowa’s 99 counties every year to hear from farmers and rural residents with a stake in the future of agriculture. These meetings allow him to listen to their needs and better lead the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship as it seeks to serve the people of the state. His priorities as Secretary of Agriculture are advancing science and new technologies to better care for our air, soil and water and reaching out to all Iowans to tell the story of Iowa agriculture.