A note from the Editor of the American Journal of Alternative Agriculture:
At its annual meeting in March, 1993, the Board of Directors of the Institute for Alternative Agriculture voted to rename the IAA the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture. It did so to honor the former Secretary of Agriculture's manifold contributions to agriculture and the longstanding support of the Institute by his daughter, Mrs. Jean Wallace Douglas.
To help our readers understand the timeliness and appropriateness of this decision, we asked Professor Don F. Hadwiger, a member of this publication's board and a long-time student of agricultural history, to provide a perspective on the connections between the life and work of Henry A. Wallace and the purposes of the institution which now bears his name. Our thanks to Don Hadwiger for responding so eloquently to our request.
America's farmers, over the years, have received and accepted much good advice about how to value their way of life, how to become more efficient producers, how to maintain prices and incomes, how to preserve the soil and the natural environment, and how to relate to other economic sectors and to farmers in other countries.
One continuing source of enlightened leadership during the past century has been four generations of the Wallace family, beginning with "Grandfather Henry" in the 19th century (Lord, 1947). The family of Wallaces have loved agriculture and respected farmers (they were farmers themselves). They have been thoughtful and farsighted. They have found ways to communicate with farmers, particularly through journals such as Wallaces' Farmer. In each era they have worked closely with the other farm leaders. Two of the Wallace's -- Henry C., and his son Henry A. -- became United States Secretaries of Agriculture.
Secretary Henry A. Wallace in particular created a "new" U.S. Department of Agriculture by adding economic, conservation, and food programs while reinvigorating agricultural research from the "old" department. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who named Wallace to the cabinet post, observed that the Department under Wallace became a model for efficient administration, and positioned itself for the emergencies resulting from depression and war, such as the need to provide food assistance to nations besieged by Hitler.
While others advising President Roosevelt focused on problems of the day, Secretary Wallace was also envisioning ways to address new missions. Wallace, for example, was an exponent of reciprocal trade agreements as a way to increase agricultural markets and promote American prosperity. President Roosevelt, appreciating Wallace's vision, his outstanding record as an administrator, and his loyalty to New Deal principles, chose Wallace as his Vice Presidential nominee in 1940. No other Secretary of Agriculture has been so honored.
Henry A. Wallace envisioned a more enduring world, reborn from depression and war, which would fashion a more humane capitalism. Wallace stated several missions for government, especially in relation to agriculture: to help farmers gain spiritual as well as material rewards from their chosen occupation; to stabilize the agricultural economy; to provide an ever-normal granary that would keep food supplies in readiness for urgent need; to preserve the soil and other natural resources across America and throughout the world; and to increase and sustain food production worldwide in order to meet the needs of a massive human population (Schapsmeier and Schapsmeier, 1968).
Among these goals Wallace was always inclined to give first priority to spiritual and human concerns; but he was convinced that human civilizations lasted only so long as they treasured and protected the fragile natural environments of their agricultures.
Both idealist and realist, Wallace believed that farming provided a unique spiritual experience, and that rural society offered a wholesome balance within an industrial nation. Wallace anticipated that technological changes would dictate a continuing decline in the number of farmers, but he wanted this decline to be the measure of a vigorous agricultural economy rather than the product of farm distress and unemployment.
The fact that modern agricultural economies were vulnerable to instability concerned Henry A. Wallace, in his first political involvement and throughout his career. In the 1920s Wallace supported the McNary-Haugen bills to provide adequate commodity prices. Later as Secretary of Agriculture, his New Deal programs removed price-depressing surpluses, provided for orderly marketing, and ultimately embodied the mechanism of the ever-normal granary that would store commodities during years of abundance, and during lean years make them available in the market and for food assistance. To Wallace, a stable agricultural economy was a necessary condition for agricultural prosperity, for achieving abundant and moderately priced food, and for building a durable, sustainable agricultural system. In Wallace's mind these goals went together.
Henry A. Wallace always harbored a concern for developing a durable agriculture. He frequently called attention to the importance of maintaining soil fertility. He was particularly concerned about the precarious food situation of the world's populous nations such as India and China. Repeatedly he expressed dismay that more than 100 million acres of farm land in China had been seriously damaged by erosion, and he looked for remedies within Chinese agriculture (such as the practice of returning nutrients to the soil) and remedies also through the application of new technologies. Wallace worried that the United States, with resources plentiful for its modest population, was becoming reckless in the use of them. "Destructive as [the Chinese] may have been," he said, "we in the United Stated, during the past mere 150 years, have handled our land in a way that indicates even more destructive possibilities" (Wallace, 1934, p. 239).
Far from proposing a simplistic strategy for creating a durable agriculture, Wallace viewed the problem from a full range of perspectives, and found solutions in each perspective. Of course he expected major miracles from new technology: Wallace himself was instrumental in the development of hybrid seeds that multiplied crop yields. From this technology he expected an uninterrupted upward trend in per acre output. With such growing yields, adequate production of crops could be obtained on stable, fertile lands, relieving pressures to crop hillsides and other marginal lands.
Wallace also promoted conservation engineering and cultivation practices developed by soil conservationists. Although the federal soil conservation agency was first established in the U.S. Department of Interior, Wallace subsequently secured its transfer to the USDA under the name of the Soil Conservation Service, and thenceforth Wallace supported the agency's cost-sharing and other innovative programs. Wallace took pride in establishing the goal of Soil conservation and rationale for the farm commodity programs, in the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936.
Wallace favored certain fundamental practices which have been referred to as organic agriculture and lately as alternative agriculture and sustainable agriculture. For example, Wallace felt it was essential to preserve humus in the Soil to insure continued high yields. He said, "...there is more to Soil conservation than preserving the chemical element. You must have the humus there too and you must have the manure. It takes organics as well as minerals to blend a truly rich and fertile Soil; it takes all kinds of organic material" (Wallace, 1943a, p. 242). Wallace looked for ways to incorporate organic matter into the top layers of Soil, finding potential merit in Edward Faulkner's early thesis that the disc was preferable to the plow (Faulkner, 1943). In 1943, Vice President Wallace wrote to farm implement maker Henry Ford, urging him to experiment with alternatives to the plow that might perform even better than the existing disc implements (Wallace, 1943b).
On cultivation as on other aspects of agriculture, Wallace was looking further ahead than most of his contemporaries. His holistic approach kept him open to new perspectives and prepared for inevitable change, ready to shape a more productive and durable agriculture. Henry A. Wallace and other members of his family were preeminent among the agricultural leaders who have offered sound advice to America's farmers.
Wallace, H.A. 1934. New Frontiers. Reynal and Hitchcock, New York.
-----. 1943a. "A billion people." The Land Quarterly 3:241-245.
-----. 1943b. "Two letters." The Land Quarterly 3: 65-66.
Faulkner, E. 1943. Plowman's Folly. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
Lord, R. 1947. The Wallaces of Iowa. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.
Schapsmeier, E.L., and Schapsmeier, F.H. 1968. Henry A. Wallace of Iowa: The Agrarian Years, 1910-1940. Iowa State University Press, Ames.
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