I’VE BEEN CATCHING UP ON SOME HISTORY LATELY-history that I believe points us toward the future.
I recently had a chance to see an excellent documentary about Henry A. Wallace, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first secretary of agriculture and second vice president. I had of course been well aware of Wallace’s contributions to the science and practice of agriculture, but I had not understood until I watched this film just how relevant Wallace’s story may be to our present circumstances.
Wallace was one of the first farmers to apply modern principles of systematic scientific experimentation in his farming operation. Based on his experiments with hybrid corn seed, he launched one of the pillars of the agricultural industry, Pioneer Hi-Bred, in 1926. But he was above all a visionary thinker who was willing to challenge the status quo, and he was called into public life at the precise time that such people were desperately needed.
As FDR’s agriculture secretary, Wallace designed revolutionary concepts that bolstered the farm economy in the height of the Great Depression. He put into place programs that stabilized farm income, controlled food production and prevented soil erosion-steps that paved the way for our most productive era in the history of agriculture and set the stage for the Green Revolution.
Wallace understood that economic prosperity grows from the roots of sound agriculture and food policy. As our country emerged from the Dust Bowl, agriculture led the country’s recovery. When our food systems and our farmers regained security, the way was opened for the great industrial and technological revolutions that followed.
Today we again find ourselves in critical need of Wallace’s brand of bold, persistent experimentation. And again, agriculture must be the steward of hope. We envision a future where farms provide our food and the foundation of a new energy economy, but to achieve it, we must remember the legacy of Henry Wallace. He showed us that sound investments in agricultural research and policy pay off, even in the hardest of times.
Molly Jahn is dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.