Clayton Yeutter: Gifted negotiator, statesman, educator and farmer

When you look back at how agriculture policy has changed -- both domestically and internationally -- in the last few decades, there is one name that consistently surfaces: former Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter.

At the 2012 Agricultural Outlook Forum, “Moving Agriculture Forward” in Arlington, VA, held on Thursday, February 23, 2012, 7 former Secretaries of Agriculture sat on the plenary panel “Visions of the Future” hosted by current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Clayton Yeutter speaks out during the panel discussions. USDA photo by Lance Cheung.

When you look back at how agriculture policy has changed - both domestically and internationally - in the last few decades, there is one name that consistently surfaces: former Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter.

But now that husky and dynamic voice has been silenced. All of us in American agriculture lost one of our staunchest advocates and most gifted leaders on March 4, when Yeutter, age 86, passed away after a four-year battle with cancer.

Born on a farm near Eustis, Neb., during the Dust Bowl days, he graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with B.S. and J.D. degrees as well as a Ph.D. in agricultural economics, and later served on the faculty there.

His career brought him into the some of the most powerful governments around the globe, but regardless of the jobs he held, Yeutter never stopped teaching or caring about the importance of helping others.

"Clayton is always reaching for the stars. He just always believes that this day, when he woke up, he faced the best day of his life," recalled former U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns in a video tribute that Agri-Pulse coordinated in 2015 . "And he has been at the very, very outer extremes of the power system in our country and it hasn't affected him. He's just that decent honorable guy that grew up on that farm in Nebraska."


Yeutter said he learned a lot about hard work from his father whom he described as "one of the hardest working people ever on the face of this earth. And my mother was not that far behind him."

He was a key advocate for opening global markets to not only free but fair, rules-based trading system.

Yeutter's early political and international experience included working for Nebraska Gov. Norbert Tiemann and as director of the University of Nebraska Mission in Colombia. Later, he served in cabinet and sub-cabinet posts for four presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He was named as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under Bush, serving from 1989 to 1991.

His distinguished career also included working as president and CEO of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange from 1978 until June 1985, U.S. Trade Representative from 1985 to 1989, chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1991 to 1992, and counselor to President Bush in 1992. Most recently, he worked as a senior advisor at the international law firm, Hogan Lovells, in Washington, D.C.

Breaking trade barriers

As the nation's top trade negotiator, he helped begin the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations in 1986, which ultimately resulted in the creation of the World Trade Organization. Through a series of difficult talks, he persuaded the Japanese government to relax restrictions on American exports, including citrus, semiconductors and beef.

He also led the negotiation of the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement until it was finalized in 1987, an important bilateral agreement that he once described as a "win-win" for farmers and workers on both sides of the border. That agreement paved the way for adding Mexico as a key trading partner in 1994 as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"His efforts led to an unprecedented expansion of agricultural exports," wrote former President George H.W. Bush in a 2015 letter.


James Baker, who was secretary of the Treasury while Yeutter served as U.S Trade Representative, described him as a "first-class example of the model American public servant. A man who always placed his country's best interests above any other consideration."

U.S. Trade Ambassador Darci Vetter, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, described her fellow Nebraskan as a "mentor and a friend" who continued to have an impact on policy long after he served in Republican administrations.

"He is serving as the elder statesmen who, although he was very politically active and loyal to his party, often speaks above and outside of party lines. He's really a patriot in the very best sense of that word to say what's in the greater interest for the United States. So he's still influencing trade policy, by being that voice of experience and wisdom," she told Agri-Pulse in 2015.

As secretary of agriculture, Yeutter helped guide the 1990 farm bill through Congress, advocating for more market-oriented farm policies that also fit within tighter budget restrictions. To promote his plan, he and his staff developed a "green book" of more than 70 farm bill recommendations.

He is survived by his wife Christy and their three daughters - Victoria, Elena, and Olivia - along with his four children Brad Yeutter, Gregg Yeutter, Kim (Yeutter) Bottimore, and Van Yeutter from his first wife, Jeanne, who died in 1993.

A memorial service is planned for Saturday, April 8, in Bethesda, Maryland.

As part of his ongoing legacy, Yeutter and his family made a $2.5 million gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation in 2015 to launch the Clayton K. Yeutter Institute of International Trade and Finance. Last fall, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced the establishment of three endowed chairs as the foundation of the Yeutter Institute: the Duane Acklie Chair in the College of Business Administration, the Michael Yanney Chair in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the Clayton Yeutter Chair in the College of Law.

Editor's note: Wyant is president and founder of Agri-Pulse Communications Inc .

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