A thin moon hung in the sky on a windy day when leaves from harvested corn blew across the lawn. As a history buff, my attention was drawn to a National Geographic Magazine, circa May 1918.
The magazine’s advertisements — for Denby motor trucks, Franklin cars, Grafton & Knight leather belting, and a host of products designed to make life easier for housewives — are interesting. So, too, are the mentions of the influenza outbreak that would eventually kill 16 million people worldwide.
Among the unfortunate fatalities were American Doughboys who left their farms to fight in Europe to, as the popular slogan held, “end all wars.’’ After the war ended, troops were shipped home on crowded ships in conditions perfect for influenza’s spread. Thousands died, earning the transports the sinister title “Coffin Ships.’’
A surplus of time led to a book — seldom opened and dusty — about Henry A. Wallace, an Iowa farmer and businessman who created the Pioneer seed company and wrote for the family’s farm publication, “Wallaces Farmer.’’ He became famous worldwide as a politician who served as U.S. ag secretary and was vice president of the U.S. under Franklin Roosevelt.
As a dairy farmer and corn producer, Wallace developed the first commercial hybrid corn in 1923, which was marketed as Copper Cross and licensed to the Iowa Seed Co. Pioneer was established three years later.
Under his U.S. Department of Agriculture leadership, he pushed production controls to limit price-deflating surpluses and backed policies to reduce rural poverty. Roosevelt picked him to be his running mate in 1940. The position provided a megaphone for his out-of-mainstream policy positions, which landed him in trouble because many Americans thought him to be too radical.
Democrat party leaders successfully pressured Roosevelt to drop Wallace from the ticket in 1944. If the move had not been made, Wallace and not Harry Truman would have been president after Roosevelt’s death the following year. Called a communist sympathizer and worse, Wallace formed a third political party and unsuccessfully ran for president. Wallace’s public appearances faded away. He died in 1965. A USDA research facility in Maryland is named in his honor.
It is easy to forget his long-term impact on agriculture now that corn yields are expected to routinely breach 200 bushels per acre if the weather cooperates. He also left a huge effect on farm policies, given that production controls to reduce surpluses remained decades later.
The present-day combine quickly ate its way through the nearby cornfield. It has been a near-perfect harvest season in these parts, save for a weeklong cold and snowy spell. Market prices for corn and soybeans have rebounded strongly from worrying laws. Some agriculture economists say farmers are on the cusp of a great financial year with others to follow.
Optimism allows for a new golden age, which began in the early 21st century and continued for too short of time.
Dad, who had a healthy suspicion of politicians who claimed to help family farmers and of commodity traders and market analysts who were wrong as much as they were right, was right to say that the future is built by people who did the heavy lifting before our arrival.
You must keep in mind that without the homestead acts of the 1800s, family farms would not exist west of the Mississippi River. Without the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association of the Great Depression years, farmsteads would not have been powered up until years later; and without Henry Wallace, agriculture may have never gained the ability to feed the world.
Although he never said it, without the sacrifice of those who came before us, it is likely careers in farming would have been much more difficult for many to obtain.
Success is never guaranteed; it depends on determination and commitment.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.