"Good farming, clear thinking, right living"
The Wallaces of Iowa may have done more than any other single family to shape the nature of agriculture in the United States.

By Laura Sayre
Posted September 13, 2004

"Neither corn nor men were meant to be completely uniform."

--Henry A. Wallace

Henry A. Wallace (1888-1965) could arguably be said to have had a mixed impact on agricultural sustainability. Born into a family of well-connected, progressive Iowan agriculturists, Wallace was among the earliest advocates of hybrid corn and the first person to develop hybrid lines for sale. In 1926, he founded the Hi-Bred Corn Company, later to become Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., thus helping to launch the 20th century's spectacular increase in corn yields and all but eliminating Midwestern farmers' ability to grow their own seed. By 1942, less than 1 percent of Iowa's corn was still grown from open-pollinated varieties and Pioneer Hi-Bred was posting annual revenues of $2.5 million.

In retrospect, the development of hybrid seed held enormous symbolic as well as economic value. Rural sociologist Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr.—in his book First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology (Cambridge, 1988), still by far the most intelligent history of the seed trade—-argues that hybridization marked a watershed in the commodification of plant genetic resources, the point at which private interests trumped public benefits in shaping the direction of plant breeding. (Kloppenburg's book will be reissued by University of Wisconsin Press in 2005. See www.wisc.edu/wisconsinpress/books/2659.htm for more information.)

But Henry A. Wallace should not be held personally responsible for the rise of American agribusiness. In the first place, he discovered hybrid corn's commercial potential slowly and reluctantly. As John C. Culver and John Hyde note in their engrossing biography, American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace (W. W. Norton, 2000), Wallace initially hoped "hybrid corn might be spread by some type of noncommercial mechanism, such as a nonprofit national institute” (83). He had a greater appreciation of corn's variability than most of his contemporaries and was an early advocate for the preservation of crop genetic diversity. "Neither corn nor men were meant to be completely uniform," he wrote with William L. Brown in their 1956 textbook, Corn and Its Early Fathers.

In the second place, Wallace's role in American agricultural history extends far beyond hybrid corn. Named "the most influential Iowan of the 20th century" by the Iowa's statewide newspaper, the Des Moines Register, Wallace held two positions that gave him enormous influence over agricultural policy and practice in the United States from about 1910 through World War II. First, he spent two decades as a writer and editor for Wallaces' Farmer, the weekly agricultural journal founded by his father and grandfather; next, he served as secretary of agriculture under Franklin Delano Roosevelt from 1933 to 1940, and then became FDR's vice-president from 1941 to 1945.

From farm boy to statesman

Henry A. Wallace is widely regarded as "the best secretary of agriculture the country has ever had," in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. His capacity in that office was built not just on passion and commitment to farmers, but on a broad and intimate experience with farming. Although Henry A. moved with his parents from a farm near Orient, Iowa, to Ames when he was 3, and then to Des Moines when he was 7, he nevertheless managed to grow up as a farm boy and retain that identity his entire life. (The farm near Orient is now home to the non-profit Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center. For more on the Center, click here.) At age 10, he had charge of the family garden, supplying all of the household's vegetables; as the eldest child his daily chores also included taking care of the family's livestock, which even in Des Moines included horses, chickens, hogs, and cows.

His mother, Ilo Browne Wallace, encouraged his early interest in plants by teaching him to breed pansies, and when he was 15 he challenged the widely held belief that large, uniform ears made the best seed corn by growing out 33 ears of Reid yellow dent on 5 acres behind the family home, doing all the work himself, from planting and cultivating to harvesting and shelling. He showed that yields ranged from 33 to 79 bushels per acre, and that the prettiest ears by no means produced the highest yields.

To contemporaries, Henry A. Wallace was a bewildering combination of intellectual, hayseed, man-of-action, and ascetic.

The motto of Wallaces' Farmer, launched in 1895, was "Good farming, clear thinking, right living," and it could have been the family's motto as well. The first Henry Wallace (1836-1916), Henry A.'s grandfather, was a Presbyterian minister who moved to western Iowa for health reasons in 1877, bought land, and discovered a second career as a writer, editor, and publisher. Henry A.'s father, Henry C. Wallace (1866-1924), farmed, edited the family magazine in his turn, and later became U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under Warren G. Harding.

Wallaces' Farmer offered news and research, opinions and analysis, information and entertainment, exhortation and encouragement to its Midwestern readers. Like most farm periodicals, it always had a generous letters section, fielding queries on everything under the sun and inviting readers to share tips and insights with one another. At its height in the 1920s, Wallaces' Farmer reached 250,000 paying subscribers. (It suffered greatly in the Depression and was taken over by a rival publisher in 1932, but retained the name and is still in print.)

As editors, the Wallaces never hesitated to offer political analysis and policy recommendations; indeed, to a large extent they helped define the 'Farm Bloc' as a political constituency. (Henry C. Wallace helped found the American Farm Bureau in 1920; less than a year later it was the largest farm organization in the United States, with more than a million members.) In the prosperous farming years before and during World War I, the three Henry Wallaces repeatedly predicted the coming post-war farm crisis, urging farmers to pay off their debts, make necessary improvements and prepare for the worst. When the hard times came in the 1920s—while other sectors were booming, farmers' buying power dropped precipitously as commodity prices crashed and prices of other goods rose—they harangued Washington to address the farmers' plight. At the same time, they tried to convince farmers to plant less corn and more clover in order to protect their soil and stop exacerbating commodity surpluses.

Henry A. Wallace hashed out many of the ideas he would later implement as secretary of agriculture in the pages of Wallaces' Farmer, including his concept of the 'ever-normal granary'—a policy whereby the government would step in to buy commodity surpluses in times of plenty and disburse them in times of scarcity, thus dampening price fluctuations. As a young man his heroes included the conservationist Gifford Pinchot and the horticulturist and agricultural reformer Liberty Hyde Bailey. His senior thesis at Iowa State, titled "Relation between Live Stock Farming and the Fertility of the Soil," argued that soil conservation was both an individual responsibility and a national imperative.

An autodidact and a polymath, Wallace studied economics, meteorology, history, genetics, and many other subjects. His first book, Agricultural Prices (1920), analyzed the cyclical relationship between hog and corn prices and considered ways in which farmers could be given a degree of protection from the laws of supply and demand that put them increasingly at a disadvantage with respect to industrial producers. His second book, Corn and Corn Growing (written with Earl N. Bressman), was a practical manual for farmers. Next he co-authored a book on statistics, Correlation and Machine Calculation, which became a standard reference volume in the field.

As secretary of agriculture, Wallace oversaw the creation and implementation of nearly all of the major 20th-century federal agricultural programs and agencies as we know them, including the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service), the commodity payment system, and the redirection of agricultural surpluses to school lunch programs and the poor. In the early years of FDR's presidency, Wallace was regarded as the most influential cabinet member, the standard bearer of the New Deal. Above all, he labored hard to educate both farmers and non-farmers about the importance of soil conservation, crisscrossing the country, giving speeches, publishing articles, and talking to reporters. "To see rich land eaten away by erosion, to stand by as continual cultivation on sloping fields wears away the best soil, is enough to make a good farmer sick at heart," he said.

Striving to safeguard "rural civilization"

By all accounts, Wallace was a pensive, modest, frugal, and deeply spiritual person. After leaving the Presbyterian Church when the elders objected to his teaching William James's Varieties of Religious Experience to an adult Sunday school class, he ranged restlessly among different faiths and philosophies, including Transcendentalism, Theosophy, and Liberal Catholicism. Eventually, he came to describe himself as a "practical mystic," meaning that he believed "God was in everything." For most of his life he was also a vegetarian, and continually experimented with different diets in a quest to discover the minimal requisite nutritional intake.

The life and career of Henry A. Wallace embodies the key paradoxes of agricultural history—the ways in which labor-saving devices or production gains usually lead to surpluses, lower prices, and, ultimately, fewer farmers.

Contemporary journalists remarked on Wallace's inability to fit in to the rough and tumble world of Washington, D.C, his strange combination of intellect, hayseed, and ascetic. Today, perhaps, that kind of 'outsider' image might be regarded as an advantage, but in 1944 Wallace was forced off of FDR's vice-presidential ticket. He was named secretary of commerce from 1945 to 1946, then left public service to become editor of the New Republic. Increasingly critical of President Truman's foreign policy, in 1948 he ran for president as a Progressive Party candidate. He received just over a million votes, and then retired to a farm in New York, where he resumed his plant and animal breeding work.

The life and career of Henry A. Wallace embodies the key paradoxes of agricultural history—the ways in which labor-saving devices or production gains usually lead to surpluses, lower prices, and, ultimately, fewer farmers. Unable to escape that dilemma, instead Wallace embraced it, hoping that the love, dignity, and worth of agricultural life would be able to hold its own despite the inexorable changes. In 1925, ghostwriting a conclusion to his father's posthumously published book Our Debt and Duty to the Farmer, Henry A. declared: "The men of vision must arise soon if the United States is to be saved from the fate of becoming a preponderantly industrial nation in which there is not a relation of equality between agriculture and industry. . . . [We] must set the minds of the farmers on fire with the desire for a rural civilization carrying sufficient economic satisfaction, beauty, and culture to offset completely the lure of the city."