Man blamed for the downfall of the family farm dies

Former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz died last week at 98. Born in 1909 (!) on a dairy farm in Noble County, Indiana, Butz went to school in a one-room schoolhouse and graduated with six other classmates. He passed away in his sleep while visiting his son in Washington, DC He was the oldest living former Cabinet member from any administration.

Butz spent his career zigzagging between Washington DC and Indiana, where he alternated government posts with work at the ag school at Purdue, his alma mater. In the early seventies, bad weather, a grain shortage, and high costs for inputs like chemicals, equipment, and fuel had raised food prices to a point that had consumers protesting. The timing was perfect for Butz, as secretary of agriculture under Nixon, to launch his “rejiggering” of the American food system. Butz’s advice to small farmers was “Get big or get out.”  He encouraged large farms to buy chemicals in bulk and skim down labor costs. Tying subsidies to yields rather than acreage, loosening regulations, and beating back trade rules increased output by American farms and lowered food prices. Butz certainly accomplished his goal. But at what cost?

The president of the National Farmers Organization at the time of the Eisenhower administration told the Senate agricultural committee that Butz “is widely known among farmers for his callous lack of concern about their welfare.” More to the point, he was also a paid board member and stockholder of three agribusiness giants (International Minerals and Chemicals, Stokely-Van Camp, and Ralston Purina). A 2003 article in Believer magazine called “Children of the Corn Syrup” points out that Butz might have been fond of saying “Get the government out of the ag business,” but what he actually did was just the opposite: putting agribusiness in the government. Today, critics of big ag, from Michael Pollan to the filmmakers of King Corn, blame Butz for the demise of the American family farm.

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