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A Special Tribute to Earl Butz

Ten years ago we interviewed Earl Butz for a special ongoing series in Farm Futures called 20 Questions. We reprint that interview today in honor of his passing.

March 10, 2008

13 Min Read

Butz Still Has Bite 

Editor's Note: 10 years ago in Farm Futures we interviewed former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz for a special ongoing series we called 20 Questions.. Over the weekend Secretary Butz passed away. We thought readers would enjoy seeing what he had to say when we asked him 20 questions in our special series. Note his response to the last question...

When President Richard Nixon asked Earl Butz to join his administration in 1971, he said he wanted a vigorous spokesperson for agriculture. During his swearing in ceremony, Butz said, "Mr. President, you may have a more vigorous spokesperson than you want."

What he got was a quick-tongued, outspoken advocate who delivered the most hard-hitting and colorful defense of farmers and higher farm profits in the history of not just FARM FUTURES but perhaps all of American agriculture. Whether it was breaking open a loaf of bread to demonstrate how little farmers reap out of each food dollar or biting into an apple, free of worms thanks to agricultural chemicals, Butz served as a tireless campaigner for farmers. All of this helped the Nixon administration court the farm vote but also made it incredibly difficult to calm consumers over skyrocketing food prices.

In March of 1972, Butz boasted to the media "The price of corn is up some, the price of soybeans is higher than it's ever been, cattle are at a twenty year high, hogs are higher than a year ago and getting higher and dairy prices are at a pretty good level." In July of 1972, he announced a historic three-year deal with the Soviets to sell wheat, corn and other grains -- opening up export opportunities like never before and leading to significantly higher farm prices.

For all of the "good news" Butz generated, this former Indiana farm boy was not without critics or his share of problems. During his confirmation hearings, Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris called Butz "an agent of the giant agribusiness corporations." Public outcry over the Russian grain deal generated investigations and harsh criticism by both the General Accounting Office and the Justice Department -- even though no criminal fraud or conflict was ever discovered. And those one-liners and jokes that spilled off the edge of his tongue and kept colleagues chuckling eventually came back to haunt him. The public outcry over one led to his hasty resignation and departure from then President Gerald Ford's administration in 1976.

Butz remains a champion of free markets and higher agricultural profits. He still delivers at least one speech a month and donates the honorarium to the Butz scholarship fund at Purdue University.

Before this interview, Executive Editor Sara Wyant delivered about 60 fresh-baked examples of the prop that he has long used to demonstrate farmer's minor share of food dollars. Butz could hardly resist the smell, yet alone the chance to bite into one of his favorite subjects. Note: This is the main image that originally appeared with the story.

Almost every weekday, you can find him back on the Purdue campus, nestled in a small office on the fifth floor of Purdue's Agricultural Economics Department, where he taught and served as dean of the college of agriculture. Photos of former Presidents, world leaders, and other dignitaries blanket the walls. Behind his desk are the family photos of his two sons, six grandchildren and his beloved Mary Emma, who he lost two years ago as a result of Parkinson's disease. At 88 years old, his gate is not quite as quick and the colorful commentary doesn't jump out and grab listeners like it did when he preached to audiences in the early 70's. But the fire inside, the mental quickness and the jokes ... oh, the jokes are still firmly within the former Secretary's grasp.

1. FF: You grew up on a 160 acre farm near Albion, Indiana. If you were growing up on that farm today, would you still have same perspectives about the need for free markets in agriculture?

Butz: I think so. It was a typical, maybe a little larger than the typical farm in those days, a herd of cattle of 25 or 30 cows and calves, maybe 5 horses for power, and a tractor for plowing. But I'm glad I left that farm because I've led a pretty good life -- better than staying on a small farm. My neighbor, he stayed on the farm and enjoys the same kind of life I do but he now rents from half a dozen landlords and landladies and he farms about 1,800 acres. He's today's family farmer.

2. FF: Why were you glad that you left the farm?

Butz: I enjoy a pretty good living. I got up this morning and the room was dark. I

pressed a button and the room lighted up. I didn't grow up that way. We had lanterns when I grew up. I went into the bathroom, turned the spigot and had hot water right adjacent to my bedroom. I didn't grow up that way -- we had an outhouse. I went in there, reached up and got some nice soft toilet tissue -- didn't have to tear a page out of the Sears Roebuck catalog and hope I didn't get a slick sheet. You're too young to have that experience, but it was a tragic one -- those slick pages on the catalogs.

3. FF: When you were growing up, was there ever a defining moment when you decided that something other than farming was in your future ?

Butz: I grew up going to a Lutheran church, with a strong religious background. The preacher was asking me to go to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. For a while I seriously considered that. Then one day the county agent called up and said, "I'm going down to Purdue. Why don't you ride along?" He took me and two other chaps along to the office of the associate dean. That was the turning point in my life I guess.

4. FF: When did public service and political involvement become important to you?

Butz: My best experience at Purdue was outside of the classroom. In my first week here I went to the editorial office and I spent 4 years on the Purdue Exponent, ending up as editor-in-chief. The best part of my education was communication. Two things stayed with me: oral communication and written communication. I strongly urge students to participate in those areas to develop leadership and people skills.

5. FF: Why didn't you seek a career in journalism?

Butz: I graduated in 1932, which was the depth of the Depression. Frankly, I sought a job in journalism. I'd made contact with the editorial people at the Farmers Guide in Indiana. There were a few other papers but there were no jobs whatever. If there'd been a job I'd probably ended up as editor of a paper somewhere and missed a fascinating career. So I was home on the farm for a year and essentially ran it because my father got a job with the local Farm Bureau cooperative as a manager. After a year, things began to open up at the university. They got money for graduate assistantships at $60 a month.

6. FF: Tell us about your early involvement in politics. Were you always a Republican?

Butz: No. I grew up in a strong Democratic family, but I learned to read. The first time I voted was in 1932, and I voted a straight Democratic ticket. Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for the first time. I guess my vote was mostly a protest vote because Herbert Hoover  -- everyone blamed him for the Depression. When Roosevelt later tried to stack the Supreme Court to get his way --  that turned me off.

A few weeks ago, I talked to a group of about 50 students. My topic was "Get active in politics in the party of your choice." I said, "How many of you come from Republican families?" Half put up their hands. "How many come from Democratic families?" and one-third put up their hands. "What about that portion that didn't put up their hands?" Well, we're independent, we're middle of the road.

I say get out of the middle of the road. The only thing you find in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead skunks, or up in Amish territory, horse manure.

7. FF: Your own political career wasn't without controversy. Looking back at your involvement in politics, you've had some ups and downs along the road. Why?

Butz: Oh yes, we all do. If you're in public life, the press picks out the sordid details, picks out the occasional slip, the scandal. We can't blame the press for that. The most competitive thing we have in society today is TV. If you don't like what you hear, you just press a button. They vie for a share of the marketplace. They give us what we want. We want the scandal, we want the dirt.

8. FF: Is that type of exposure working as a deterrent for people to really be involved in politics today?

Butz: I think it is. It's kind of hard for me to see why a person goes in and subjects himself to abuse, to attack. If you look for a crack in the armor somewhere -- and there's always one there if you look hard enough -- you can find one. If we don't somewhat change that we're going to be left without having our best people in public life.

9. FF: Why do so many farmers remember your years as Secretary of Agriculture, (1971-1976) so favorably?

Butz: I used the secretaryship as a spokesman for agriculture. When I go out now as I did then, I try to make them proud of their profession. They're under attack by the environmentalists, the be kind to animals folks, the anti-chemical crowds. They've got a tremendous track record. We feed ourselves in this country now with about 11% of our take-home pay, which means we feed ourselves with about 6% of our gross domestic product. That includes all the built in service you get at the store now. Imagine: 11% of take home pay, leaves 89% for everything that makes life so wonderful in America. That's why the number one student complaint at the university is where do I park my car, not where do I get food.

10. FF: When did you start using bread as prop in your speeches?.

Butz: It illustrates what I was trying to get across. With a bushel of wheat you can make about 70 one-pound loaves of bread. So if you take wheat at about $3.50 a bushel -- 70 loaves, a nickels worth of wheat in a loaf of bread and that bread costs 75 cents, so a nickel into 75 cents equals 1/15. That 1/15 is a slice and a half of the loaf, that's the heal and one slice. It costs more to move that loaf of bread past the checkout counter than it cost to put the wheat in it. Then they bitch about the farmer getting the heel and one slice.

11. FF When you were in the secretary's chair you had to make some incredibly tough decisions. Describe one of the toughest.

Butz: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was a fellow cabinet member and he recognized that food is a powerful tool in foreign policy -- a very powerful tool -- and I used to have some terrific battles with him. I didn't win 'em all, but we had tremendous pressure to control food prices. Right in the middle of the Ford administration, food prices were going up, and of course I was pushing exports.

12. FF: Were there any regrets you had during that time?

Butz: There was tremendous pressure to put price controls on food stuffs, which is a mistake. The president brought John Dunlap down from Harvard University. He had done a cost of living analysis for the White House and by George, he got to insisting on price ceilings and stopping the exports. And almost over my dead body we stopped large loads of corn and soybeans going down the Mississippi River in New Orleans to be loaded on ocean going vessels. We stopped them dead in the Mississippi River. It was one fight I lost, and it cost the government quite a big chunk to pay for the damages. It was a tremendous mistake.

13. FF: Was that the biggest mistake you made when you were secretary?

Butz: I didn't make that mistake but that was when I lost the battle. Dunlap went back to Harvard where he should have stayed in the first place. The biggest battles after that were from the anti-chemical people, the be kind to animals people.

14. FF: What was your proudest accomplishment when you were secretary?

Butz: Promotion of exports and opening up our foreign markets. And again, one of my best accomplishments was making farmers proud of their profession, everyone.

15. FF: At least you got to fight the battles at the White House. Can a secretary of agriculture today really be a player on national policy?

Butz: It depends on who it is. We've got right now in Dan Glickman, a very competent secretary of agriculture but nobody knows he's there. I used it as a bully pulpit. Go out and ask the person on the street who is the secretary of agriculture now and none of them would know. What is the department of agriculture? None of them would know. It's completely out of the news.

16. FF: Let's talk about future policy. What will happen when the Freedom to Farm Bill phases out farm program payments by 2002?

Butz: Anyone who believes we're going to stop direct payments to farmers in 2002 also believes in the tooth fairy.

17. FF: Will there be different kinds of payments, perhaps more conservation oriented?

Butz: That will change, but we're now organized by commodity groups The corn growers are organized, the peanut growers are organized, the sugar folks are organized. One of the best ways you can keep me as a corngrower happy about paying my dues is that I have to get some benefit for my dues. The best benefit is a higher price, some way or other.

18. FF: Many agribusinesses are getting significantly larger by consolidating, partnering, and forming alliances. Is that a threat or an opportunity for farmers?

Butz: That becomes inevitable. Is it a good thing? To the extent that it increases efficiency it is. There are economies of scale or they wouldn't be doing it. Does it lead to monopoly pricing? If you don't watch it there's always a tendency --  except now we have competition among different products in related fields, so that if one company has a major share of this particular market and they get too far out of line, somebody moves in on it.

19. FF: If you were that 1,800 acre farmer who stayed back at the farm next to your home place, what would be your biggest concern now for others trying to farm?

Butz: The biggest concern right now would be the difficulty of entry for the next generation into active farming. Unlike the company in town where you have shares of ownership widely scattered, the family farm needs to recapitalize every generation. It's a tremendous investment, and you have to pass that from generation to generation under this family farm structure. Our present tax structure makes it increasing difficult to do that.

20. FF: What message would you like to see inscribed on your tombstone?

Butz: Well, I won't have one because I'll be next to my wife in a mausoleum. But I suppose if I have a saying I'm known for, it would be "Adapt or die".

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