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Iowans key in leading the USDA for the past 150 years

BY GUEST COLUMN | JUNE 25, 2012 6:30 AM

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Eight of the 30 U.S. Agriculture Department secretaries have ties to Iowa.

Three former Agriculture secretaries were born in Iowa, including Mike Johanns (Osage), Henry A. Wallace (near Orient), and Edwin Meredith (near Avoca). While not born in Iowa, Tom Vilsack, Henry C. Wallace, and James Wilson lived a majority of their lives in the state.

Secretaries Ezra Benson and Arthur Hyde came to Iowa to receive a portion of their education. Benson received a master of science in agricultural economics from what was then called Iowa State College (now Iowa State University). Hyde graduated from the University of Iowa's College of Law.

Vilsack's experiences in Iowa gave him an insight into the importance of agricultural exports, conservation, local and regional food systems, and the bio-based economy all needed to build a strong foundation for a revitalized rural economy.

Johanns was sworn in as the 28th secretary of the USDA on Jan. 21, 2005. After serving as Agriculture secretary, Johanns successfully ran for a U.S. Senate seat in the state of Nebraska in 2008. Before become secretary, Johanns served as the governor of Nebraska from 1999 to 2005. Johanns was raised on a dairy farm near Osage, where he developed a deep respect for the land and the people who work it.

Henry A. Wallace was born near Orient, Iowa, on Oct. 7, 1888, and graduated from Iowa State College. He then went to work at Wallaces Farmer, his family's paper, and helped develop hybrid corn. When his father became secretary of Agriculture, he inherited the editing of the paper.

Henry A. Wallace was secretary of Agriculture from March 4, 1933, until Sept. 4, 1940. He served as vice president of the United States from 1941 to 1945 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was also secretary of Commerce from 1945 to 1946.

Henry C. Wallace was born in Rock Island, Ill., on May 11, 1866, and grew up on the family farm in Iowa. He graduated from Iowa State College with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture and later taught there.

He became interested in agricultural journalism and joined the staff of Wallaces Farmer and became its editor in 1916 when his father died. Henry C. Wallace became secretary of Agriculture on March 5, 1921, and served until his death in office on Oct. 25, 1924.

Meredith was born on Dec. 23, 1876, near Avoca, Iowa. After studying at Highland Park College in Des Moines, he became an agricultural journalist.

Meredith was secretary of Agriculture from Feb. 2, 1920, to March 4, 1921. He then resumed his career in journalism. Meredith died on June 17, 1928.

Wilson was born on Aug. 16, 1835, in Ayrshire, Scotland, and attended what is now Grinnell College. He was elected to Iowa House of Representatives and became its speaker. Wilson then went on to represent Iowa in the U.S. Congress from 1873 to 1877 and again from 1883 to 1885.

He was secretary of Agriculture for 16-consecutive years, from March 6, 1897, to March 5, 1913. This is the longest term of any Cabinet member. Also, Wilson is still the only Cabinet member to serve three presidents.

Through our work on food, agriculture, economic development, science, natural-resource conservation, and a host of issues, the USDA still fulfills President Lincoln's vision as "The People's Department" by touching the lives of every American, every day.

Bill Menner
USDA rural-development state
director, Iowa


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