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Taylor, Henry Charles

Published onJul 30, 2021
Taylor, Henry Charles

(April 16, 1873 – April 28, 1969)

Quick Facts

As and esteemed agricultural economist Taylor felt that public agencies supplying economic information are essential to rational farm management and to the intelligent marketing of farm products.

Henry C. Taylor, more than anyone else, influenced the shape of the agricultural economics profession. When he came to the University of Wisconsin, his professor, Richard T. Ely, told him, “You are the answer to my prayers.” Ely had come to Wisconsin with a determination to improve the lies of neglected citizens, especially farmers and industrial workers. Taylor had come anticipating a career as a farmer-statesman. But after his first year under Ely’s tutelage, Taylor decided to become a professional economist with a commitment to action.

Descended from a line of pioneer settlers whose quest was as much for equality of opportunity as for land, the Van Buren County native grew up with the values of the populist and granger movements. His sensitivity to the needs of farmers, his keen sense for policy, and his willingness to take unpopular positions were evident in his work from the beginning.

Taylor received his BS in Agriculture (1896) from University of Wisconsin-Madison, and MS in Agriculture (1898) from Iowa State College (now University).

While still a graduate student, Taylor asked Secretary of Agriculture “Tama Jim Wilson” about the possibility of working in economics at the Agriculture Department. Wilson, who considered economics too esoteric for agricultural planning, advised him to specialize in something more practical.

Undeterred, Taylor finished his PhD, turned to teaching, and became the first professor of agricultural economics in a land grant institution. His practical approach included short courses for farmers plus education in marketing and farmer cooperatives. He proved agricultural economics to be less than esoteric. Two decades after Secretary Wilson discouraged him, Taylor was heading the farm management office for the Department of Agriculture. But his main task, under then Secretary Henry C. Wallace was to consolidate all economic research and service activities into a new bureau of Agricultural Economics.

As Chief of the Bureau, Taylor organized around a research core of PhD’s who built the largest economic research and service organization in the U.S. government. Taylor felt that public agencies supplying economic information are essential to rational farm management and to the intelligent marketing of farm products.” The Bureau emphasized three lines: crop and livestock estimating and statistical services, commodity marketing, and farm organization and management.

Taylor was a bold believer in putting out facts and figures to help farmers adjust production up or down in pursuit of better profits. However, he believed the Bureau should not enter into action programs to affect prices. Then, farm prices collapsed and Secretary Wallace sent him on a tour of the Northwest to get first-hand information about farmers’ attitudes. Taylor found that college people felt farm credit alone would solve the problem. He heard a different story from farmers who called for a protective tariff and an export corporation plan. This pushed him toward a more action oriented stance.

Taylor’s radicalization was completed when Calvin Coolidge became President. Not attuned to the needs of farmers, Coolidge dismissed Taylor abruptly charging him with designing federal relief programs that required extensive federal funds. Embittered and denying the charge, Taylor claimed the federal government was more interested in cheap food for urban consumers than in the welfare of farmers.

Following his dismissal, Taylor settled back into scholarship and wrote about his Washington experiences and agricultural economics. He also directed Vermont’s Country-Life Commission and the Farm Foundation besides working several years in Rome, and traveling to Japan, Korea, China, and India to review rural problems there.

Recognized as the elder statesman of agricultural economics during his later years, Taylor was visited by many people who sought his wisdom and advice. Even after being hospitalized with cancer, his zest for life never faltered and he always stood by the value of teaching in the belief that “this is the road to true immortality.”

Selections of text republished with permission from Iowans who made a difference: 150 years of agricultural progress by Don Muhm and Virginia Wadsley, published by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, 1996.

Selected Sources

Jones, C. Clyde (July 1958). "Henry C. Taylor: Father of Agricultural Economics (1873-)". Agricultural History32 (3): 196–97.

Parsons, Kenneth H. (June 1991). "Henry Charles Taylor, 1873-1969: Organizer and first head of the USDA's BAE". Choices: The Magazine of Food, Farm & Resource Issues6 (2): 28.

Parsons, Kenneth H. (May 1970). "Henry Charles Taylor: A Personal Tribute by a Colleague". Land Economics46 (2): 191–93.

Penn, R. J. (December 1969). "Henry Charles Taylor, 1873-1969". American Journal of Agricultural Economics51 (5): 999–1002. 

Unknown author (August 1969). "Henry C. Taylor". American Journal of Agricultural Economics51 (3): 732–33.

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