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Harold Breimyer: Remarkable career

I once commented to Harold Breimyer that had he not chosen to be an economist, a career at which he distinguished himself at many levels over nearly seven decades, he could've been a superb journalist.

He tongue-in-cheekishly responded: “I once attempted to qualify, during my government career, but somehow a writing role was not regarded by them as prestigious enough.”

He proved them wrong, winning prestige aplenty as the author of countless papers, books, and columns (all done on a typewriter — he never made the transition to a computer word processor). There were few practitioners of “the dismal science” who could so clearly or so thought-provokingly convey their observations on the economy, policy, and politics. He had a keen, probing curiosity about everything — which, combined with a wry, self-deprecating humor, elevated his writings far above the dry-as-dust, equation-laden works turned out by many of his fellows. His “On The Economy” columns, which ran for many years in Delta Farm Press, had a wide following and generated a lot of comment.

Dr. Breimyer, the Ohio farm boy who at 19 began his lifelong love affair with the many-faceted world of economics, died March 19 at age 86.

His was a remarkable career: The years as economist for the USDA and the Council of Economic Advisors, beginning in 1933 when the Roosevelt “New Deal” was changing the face of American agriculture, developing farm policy and serving as a liaison between the federal government and the nation's county agents who were implementing the landmark farm legislation; serving with distinction in World War II, retiring as lieutenant commander; and then, beginning in 1966, a distinguished career as Extension agricultural economist and professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, which continued until his retirement a few years ago. His honors and awards over the years would fill a chunk of this newspaper.

Towering intellects are often accompanied by monumental egos. Not Harold Breimyer. He never lost his farm boy warmth, friendliness, and sense of humor, never took himself too seriously. He was a master at gently, but deftly skewering politicians and policies and his many speaking engagements around the country could always be counted on to fill a hall.

I had the great pleasure of crossing paths with him a number of times over the years, the last in 1998 when he accepted the American Agricultural Editors Association's Distinguished Service Award, and we kept up a now-and-then correspondence.

In a letter a while back, he expressed gratitude “for the many instances when someone has told me he (or she) reads my column in Delta Farm Press. Often that person adds: ‘I usually agree with you.’ My invariable reply is: ‘I don't write in order to get people to agree; rather, I only try to introduce ideas that I believe people ought to think about.’”

Although he discontinued his regular columns for us when his health began failing, followed by heart bypass surgery and then bone cancer, he still wrote an every-Sunday column for the Columbia, Mo., Tribune, the last one appearing the day before he died. The lead paragraph read: “The game sometimes played of saying who counts for most in the mélange we call human society is a pointless game. In the final analysis, we are a herd of individuals who are mutually, even critically, dependent on each other. For my part, I have thought a most vitally important person to be the workman who collects the refuse that would otherwise go into putrefaction at the end of my street.

“But,” he went on, “we cannot equalize everything, and if special recognition is to be granted, one of the candidates has to be the producer of food, for his provisioning of the world's population.”

He was, to the end, the great champion of American agriculture and of the farmers who have made it one of the most productive “industries” on the face of the planet.

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