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.
corn nor men were meant to be completely uniform."
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
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.
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
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,
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."