Thursday, October 18, 2007

"The best secretary of agriculture the country has ever had"

"Political leaders in our democracy come in many varieties, as the present campaign suggests and as history amply records. One of the more curious examples in this century was Henry Agard Wallace of Iowa, editor, geneticist, economist, businessman, the best secretary of agriculture the country has ever had, a vice president of the United States during World War II, a third (or, as it turned out, fourth) party candidate for president at the start of the Cold War and, at the same time, an incorrigibly naive politician and privately a mystic given to improbable spiritual quests."
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

I know this is going to sound weird, but the 1938 Yearbook of Agriculture is a remarkable book. Clocking in at over 1,000 pages, with a little updating it could serve as the "Sustainable Agriculture Roadmap for the 21st Century." That's because Henry A. Wallace, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture at the time it was written was a genuine visionary. It's hard to imagine him -- or anyone like him -- as a high-ranking government official let alone vice president of the United States. That's too bad. If ever there was the need for vision in Washington, it's now.

Keep that in mind as you read the following excerpts from the 1938 Yearbook of Agriculture. (GW)

Soils and Men
Yearbook of Agriculture 1938
United States Department of Agriculture

THE EARTH is the mother of us all – plants animals, and men. The phosphorous and calcium of the earth build our skeletons and nervous systems. Everything else our bodies need except air and sun comes from the earth.

Nature treats the earth kindly. Man treats her harshly. He overplows the cropland. He destroys millions of acres completely. He pours fertility year after year into the cities, which in turn pour what they do not use down the sewers into the rivers and the ocean. The flood problem, insofar as it is man-made is chiefly the result of overplowing, overgrazing, and overcutting of timber.

This terribly destructive process is excusable in a young civilization. It is not excusable in the United States in 1938.

We know what can be done and we are beginning to do it. As individuals we are beginning to do the necessary things. As a nation, we are beginning to do them. The public is waking up, and just in time. In another 30 years it might have been too late.

Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture


Obligations of the present generation to those of the future cannot be precisely defined, but every step forward in civilization means increased regard for the interests of the future.


In opposition to the view that public policy should seek to reduce the proportion of the national man power engaged in agriculture, some people take the position that there is an essential conflict between a policy aimed at an ever-increasing material plane of living and a policy that is needed to provide the Nation adequately with many intangible values associated with rural life. It is pointed out that there are other values besides economic values; and that many human desires find their fulfillment not in the material level of living of a highly industrialized economic society but in creative activities such as home arts, handicrafts, living and working out of doors with growing things, and in the development of rural community and family life. These things, it is contended, do not fit into the modern wage, hour, price, market and exchange economy.


Theoretically, governmental policy is supposed to be motivated by the will to promote the general welfare, but at many points it has been controlled by various commercial and industrial groups for the promotion of narrower interests. To offset some of these interests, effective action by labor unions, farm organizations, and consumer groups is indispensable to a balanced organization of government. Otherwise the government cannot be truly democratic, and socially desirable legislation either will not be adopted, or it will fall short of serving the general welfare because of half-hearted execution.


If, therefore, we would preserve democracy as well as the soil, we shall continue to improve the system of collective bargaining through nongovernmental organizations of farmers, workers, and other groups that can function effectively in both economic and political fields. We shall deliberately encourage this process as one of the essential characteristics of democracy and shall steadfastly avoid resorting to government fiat backed by physical force as a means for resolving economic conflicts and promoting the general welfare.


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