With long tenures at many storied agricultural institutions, R. Douglas Hurt is now a professor of agricultural history at Purdue University.
A native of Kansas, Hurt earned his Ph.D. from Kansas State University. He served as associate director for the state historical society of Missouri and later as director of the graduate program in agricultural history at Iowa State University before coming to Purdue in 2003. He served as head of the history department at Purdue.
Hurt has also written a number of books on agricultural history in the United States.
IFT: Let’s start with a broad question. Does where we are today look like any other period in agricultural history?
HURT: I don’t think there is any close comparison. But if I consider the policy and economic situation, there may be some similarities between the last couple of years and the late 1990s. In both cases there were some government actions and economic responses that might be a little similar.
In 1996, Congress passed the farm bill that was often referred to as Freedom to Farm where farmers were supposed to be disconnected from direct farm payments, but by 1998 prices had collapsed and the government responded with aid, even though the farm bill didn’t necessarily call for it. The trade situation led by President Trump was also a government action that was followed by a collapse, and again the government responded with aid that was not included in the farm bill.
Farmers in both cases were twisting in the wind, and USDA stepped in. This may show that farmers still have a strong base of support in Congress.
IFT: The new presidential administration is set to begin. What types of things will you be watching for from the Biden administration?
HURT: What’s fallen off the radar screen is that there’s going to be a new farm bill in 2023. The farm bill in 2014 was so contentious and then in 2018 Congress just kind of kicked the can down the road, passing a farm bill with very few changes. Now what will happen in 2023?
A key may be budget reconciliation because lawmakers will be looking at what might need to be cut. There may be more discussion of food programs and support for vulnerable people. There will have to be some sort of compromise.
The outlier here may be the members of Congress who think that neither farmers nor poor people should get as much as they are presently getting. Another question will be who is eligible for farm programs and what payment limits should be. There could even be a discussion of who controls the science. Does USDA or FDA or some other agency control chemicals and labeling?
IFT: Are there any lessons for agriculture from COVID-19?
HURT: The questions of logistics and the supply chain come to mind. There may be a greater commitment to safety as well.
IFT: Any thoughts on the naming of Tom Vilsack to be secretary of agriculture for the second time?
HURT: I was personally pleased. I know he has some baggage but he has been supportive of medium-sized and large-scale farmers. Perhaps some of the small operators are not as enamored with him. To me, it looks like Biden was looking for somebody who has experience and who could hit the ground running.
IFT: In looking at the cabinet choices and the tone from the president-elect it would appear that Mr. Biden is sounding a theme of moderation. Any thoughts?
HURT: I would agree. There are no barn-burners in the cabinet.
IFT: Changing gears, do you have a favorite period in U.S. agricultural history?
HURT: I kind of alternate back and forth between 19th and 20th centuries. One of the things that has always interested me is matter of farmer politics with groups such as the Grange and People’s Party.
Also, agricultural education. We went from agricultural societies to the land grant institutions. We’ve seen a constant tension between the idea that farmers want to change and improve but that they don’t necessarily want to take advice.
I also enjoy the human side of agriculture and history. I guess you could say I’ve lived my life by reading other people’s mail (historical letters and diaries). You get to know these men and women. I enjoy the whole sweep of agricultural history.
IFT: Are many institutions teaching agricultural history?
HURT: No. Purdue is teaching agricultural history. Iowa State University teaches rural history, but rural history is not necessarily agricultural history. Mississippi State has a program. At many schools you see courses but they are under ag economics or sociology departments. There are few places where agricultural history is a career-track.
IFT: Could you tell our readers why you think it is important to study history?
HURT: You need to have a sense of place and of your own identity. If you just live in the present you have no way to judge or compare things that are happening. I would never argue that the past provides a road map because nothing is every completely the same, but it provides clues. I think there is a compelling need to understand how we got where we are.