Editorial: Recalling Butz as a memorable Secretary

by Morton Sosland
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The death earlier this year of Earl L. Butz prompted many memories for those who were industry participants when he was Secretary of Agriculture for five years from 1971 to 1976. That his term as Secretary comprised a period that was among the most exciting for all of grain-based foods helps explain why his death drew such attention. Beyond that, though, is the realization that Mr. Butz ranks as perhaps the most driven Secretary in modern history as reflected in the way he facilitated the transformation of agriculture from governmental domination of markets and crop production.

"Memorable" is a term used advisedly when speaking of Mr. Butz. After all, his service in the Cabinet of President Gerald Ford, following on from his appointment by President Richard Nixon, came to a crashing close as the result of offensive racial remarks. Forced to resign in the midst of Mr. Ford’s unsuccessful campaign for re-election, Mr. Butz faced further terrible troubles several years later. He endured a 25-day prison term for falsely understating his income in his federal tax filings for one year.

Yet, it is what happened during Mr. Butz’s service as Secretary of Agriculture that explains his memorability, which is perhaps stronger than that of any other recent Secretary. He presided over the massive sales of wheat and other grains to the Former Soviet Union, first revealed in 1972. This caused a dramatic escalation in prices, the dimensions of which were only just surpassed. By maintaining his commitment to a target export price for wheat, Mr. Butz and his staff facilitated the sales to the F.S.U., which revealed the export potential of American agriculture. In response to those sales, Mr. Butz pressed to ease acreage and other restrictions that had been for years the way the federal government sought to bring production into line with limited foreign demand. Mr. Butz argued that the F.S.U. would pay cash, and he successfully urged Presidents Nixon and Ford to encourage this business.

Mr. Butz’s personality, which is unhappily defined by the mishaps that marked his career, was often mirrored in his direct manner. He overcame the concerns of American bakers by helping to eliminate the wheat certificate program and by his declaration to a group of industry leaders, "There’s no cure for high prices like high prices." In typically unrestrained language, he described prior farm programs with acreage allotments and penalties for overproduction as "one of the stupidest things we ever did." Instead of requiring farmers to slash production, he urged planting fencerow-to-fencerow in a dramatic reversal of longstanding federal support programs. He hailed the way that maximizing production lowered the cost of food, claiming this as the "the basis for America’s affluence."

Even though the decade of the 1980s that followed his leadership of the Agriculture Department was one of the most difficult for American agriculture, as export demand lessened and prices fell, Mr. Butz remarkably retained the passionate loyalty of a broad swath of farmers and farm leaders. He was honored for pioneering agricultural economics studies at Purdue University, where he received his Ph.D. degree in 1937 and where he led the agricultural economics department. Yet, a student protest prevented the university from going ahead with plans to name a lecture hall in his honor. He continued as dean emeritus of Purdue’s college of agriculture until his death at 96.

Anyone who spoke with Mr. Butz is keenly aware of his pugnaciousness, of his commitment to unfettered agricultural production, of his belief in giving markets their head. What has been called his lack of verbal discretion is also remembered because he never hesitated to be forthright in arguing his positions. Others holding the office of Secretary of Agriculture have not always been of similar ilk, and that is why, after the passage of three decades, he is remembered by many for being the true character he was.

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