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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,308


This is the grave of Claude Wickard.

Born in 1893 in on a farm in Carroll County, Indiana, Wickard would become a farmer’s farmer, a man dedicated to improving both farm productivity and life on American farms. He was able to go to college, which for a farmer in a state like Indiana meant Purdue. He majored in agriculture and became dedicated to scientific farming. He was especially dedicated to improving stock and in 1927 became Indiana’s Master Farmer due to his prolific improvements in this area. Exciting stuff.

In 1932, this Democrat was elected to the Indiana state Senate but he didn’t last too long there. The New Deal took over. Henry Wallace became the most powerful Secretary of Agriculture in American history and he was on the lookout for talent that would transform American farming. Wickard was at the top of his list and so our Indiana friend got named chief of the chief of the corn-hog section of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and then became Undersecretary of Agriculture. If anything, we underestimate just how transformative AAA was. Between the government setting price floors for crops and forcing farmers to not grow crops, this was revolutionary. The entire idea of limiting what Americans could do on their own property, I mean what more violated core American ideologies of individualism than this? No wonder the right hated AAA so much. Most of the farmers were cool with it because of the subsidies, but certainly not all. Through this as well, Wickard continued running his family farm, which was 380 acres of prime Indiana dirt that had been in his family by that point for more than a century.

In 1940, Wallace became FDR’s Vice-President candidate and Wickard got the promotion to run Agriculture. He became a key person in promoting the agricultural side of the Lend-Lease program with the British, which was a really big part of that aid package. He was heavily involved in World War II food production. He headed the War Food Administration, established in 1943, bringing more central planning to food production for the war, though really laying the groundwork for expanded control over food production in the future. Wickard was the head of it, but as Secretary of Agriculture, he had other duties and the real administrator of the program was Marvin Jones, a Texan who was also a judge on the United States Court of Claims. Victory gardens were something Wickard spent a lot of time promoting, for instance. Among the first actions that Wickard took here was banning the sale of presliced bread, which was more about saving wax paper evidently than the bread itself. This was not a nation messing around on supplies. Wax Paper to Win the War!

In all of this, Wickard had to shift from a process of limiting production to promoting production. After all, the point of New Deal agricultural policy was not always limiting or always producing. It was the government responding to the needs of the nation and world at a given time. But for farmers, this could be frustrating. They tend to not be the most ideologically flexible people in the world and so they were skeptical about limiting production and then when they finally did so, they were skeptical about increasing production again. The problem with planning, as always, is dealing with the people. Wickard was also a guy who really did believe in central planning, even more than most other New Dealers, but he simply didn’t have the power, either statuary or within the power structure of the administration, to see that through like he wanted. In the end, Wickard wasn’t all that politically savvy, consumed by self-doubt, and despised pressure from politicians. So he often wavered. None of this helped him.

Wickard was very active as well in planning for the postwar economy. Like many New Dealers, he feared that the end of the war would lead to the return of the Great Depression. So he developed plans for mass employment programs on the farms to try and fight that, if they were needed. He also worked to create export markets for American crops, which would become a huge supporter of American agriculture after the war. He also helped set up the Bracero Program with Mexico, bringing in guestworkers to fill the labor shortages of American farms. This would prove unbelievably exploitative of the workers, but made sense from a policy perspective at the moment.

In 1945, Truman became president and he wanted his own man at Agriculture. He kicked Wickard to run the Rural Electrification Administration. It was probably the right move. Wickard had lost most of his battles inside Agriculture. He just wasn’t listened to much by the end of the war. So giving him something else to do was a good idea. The REA was a good place for him. Fewer politics, greater focus on actually helping American farmers, which was his passion anyway. He pushed electrical companies to provide that needed electricity that would transform the lives of farmers, creating co-ops that constructed nearly 900,000 miles of line and hooking up 1.6 million farms. He stayed in that role until 1953. By the time he left the job, over 88 percent of American farms were hooked to the wire. Those other 11 plus percent? They were farms like my aunt and uncle’s cattle ranch way up in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon, miles from anything at all. They didn’t get hooked up until around 1970. But anyone even remotely next to other farmers were on the wire by 1953. Eisenhower of course cleaned house in 1953, especially in agencies like Agriculture and the REA, where the real power of the New Deal resided and where Republicans really wanted to repeal it. Eisenhower really sucked.

Wickard was the named plaintiff in Wickard v. Filburn, which established federal authority to limit crop production and significantly expanded the power of the Commerce Clause. Wickard wasn’t really that personally involved here of course, but the case is super important.

Wickard returned to Indiana to run his farm, but was still active in national agricultural policy. He was the guy who testified against the Republicans attempts to roll back farm programs in the 1950s. He testified in 1956 that the Eisenhower administration had placed farmers “on the verge of disaster.” He also remained involved in shaping Democratic agricultural policy, including platform planks on the issue. He ran for the Senate in 1956, but lost to Homer Capehart. He became an early farm state supporter of JFK in 1960, which was important given that Indiana was a fairly important state and many Democrats for some reason were damned if Adlai Stevenson wasn’t going to get a third chance to lose.

In 1967, Wickard ran a stop sign at a highway crossing. His car was hit by a gravel truck and it killed him. He was 74 years old.

Claude Wickard is buried in Maple Lawn Cemetery, Flora, Indiana.

If you would like this series to visit other Secretaries of Agriculture, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. George Loring is in Salem, Massachusetts and Ezra Taft Benson is in Whitney, Idaho. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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