WASHINGTON — Earl L. Butz, who served as Secretary of Agriculture during a period of dramatic change in U.S. agriculture, died Feb. 3 while visiting a son in Washington. He was 98.
At the time of his death, Mr. Butz was the oldest living former Cabinet member.
While overseeing significant changes in agricultural policy and serving as secretary during the Russian Wheat Deal, Mr. Butz is best remembered for his resignation after telling a racist joke that was reported by the media.
In his letter of resignation to President Gerald Ford, Mr. Butz said, "This is the price I pay for a gross indiscretion in a private conversation."
Mr. Butz made the remarks on a flight to Los Angeles from the Republican National Convention in Kansas City in August 1976. Apologizing for the remark, Mr. Butz said that his "use of racial commentary in no way reflects my real attitude."
A strong advocate for a return to free markets in agriculture, Mr. Butz was credited with overseeing major changes aimed at maximizing farm sector income while diminishing the role of government in the marketplace. Farm programs under his leadership were altered from a focus on production control toward a policy that sought to maximize production and encouraged world trade.
Addressing an issue of continuing interest, he warned in 1975 against proposals to raise price support rates and target prices.
"We must never again let the government become as heavily involved in the commodity business as it was over the last four decades," he said, speaking at the annual convention of the National Grain and Feed Association. "We must have the courage to recognize that free market prices operate in an incentive system with a minimum of government interference and provide the best guarantee for full production, for full market protection and for satisfactory incomes."
Still, Mr. Butz struggled in his efforts to adopt this philosophy. It was under his watch that export embargoes were imposed and a moratorium of sales to the U.S.S.R. was instituted.
In an official statement, Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer emphasized Mr. Butz’s commitment to free markets.
"As Secretary of Agriculture, Butz insisted on giving farmers more freedom to manage their own businesses and more incentives to produce," he said. "He oversaw changes to government support programs that have helped create today's robust agricultural economy."
Mr. Butz was nominated by President Richard Nixon in November 1971 to succeed Clifford M. Hardin. At the time, Mr. Butz was dean of continuing education at Purdue University, Lafayette, Ind. His nomination was hotly contested in the Senate with controversy centering on his views of the family farm and his affiliations with "agribusiness," including membership on the board of directors of Ralston Purina.
He won Senate confirmation 51-44 after a personal lobbying effort.
A native of Indiana where he grew up on a farm, Mr. Butz graduated with a degree in agricultural economics from Purdue in 1932 and received a Ph.D. from the university in 1937. He led the school’s agricultural economics department from 1946 to 1954.
He was assistant secretary in charge of marketing and foreign agriculture from 1954 to 1957 in the Eisenhower administration before returning to Purdue as dean of agriculture.
After his resignation as Secretary of Agriculture, the harsh public spotlight fell again on Mr. Butz when he was sentenced to a 30-day prison term for tax evasion. He pleaded guilty to a charge of understating his 1978 income by $148,114.
In response to student protests, Purdue canceled a plan to name a lecture hall for Mr. Butz. He had donated $1 million to the school of agriculture in 1999.
Mr. Butz was predeceased by Mary Butz, his wife of 58 years. Survivors include two sons, Thomas and William.