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Harl, Neil

Published onAug 18, 2021
Harl, Neil

(October 9, 1933 — November 4, 2021)

Quick Facts

Alumnus Neil Harl was a Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and Life Sciences. He helped to form the Center for International Agriculture & Finance.

Professor Neil Harl was a busy man, known to keep his plate full. His expertise in agricultural economics, including organization of the farm firm, taxation, estate planning and the legal and economic aspects of farm finance, kept him busy publishing and lecturing both around the US and abroad.

Harl’s unique combination of studies made him a valuable presence at Iowa State from the time he started as a faculty member in 1964. He grew up on a small Iowa farm, and started his undergraduate degree at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) with plans to pursue farming.

When Neil Harl entered Iowa State College as a freshman in 1951, he knew that a life as a farmer was his long-term goal.

“I was not at all certain I wanted to be here,” he said. “I came here not wanting to stay and was instantly homesick.”

But Neil was torn because he was the recipient of one of just three Iowa Centennial Memorial Scholarships. It was the first year the scholarship had been awarded, and he wanted to keep that commitment.

“I couldn’t imagine wasting $300,” he remembered. “I was doing something (attending college) that I really didn’t want to do but I was determined to stick it out for a year.”

In reality, Neil didn’t finish the year out. He left the Iowa State campus in March when his brother was drafted into the military and his father had surgery.

He returned to the family farm near Seymour, Iowa, and thought he had seen the last of Ames.

Instead, he ended up with a law degree from Iowa Law School and a PhD in economics from Iowa State College. Throughout his tenure at Iowa State, his expertise in resource economics, finance, and agricultural law led him to serve on six federal commissions, and he was named a Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture in 1976.

In January 1990, Harl had just arrived in Miami, Florida to attend an estate planning conference. He remembers that his schedule was “packed,” with little time to spare over the next several months. He entered his hotel room with the phone ringing insistently. It was the USDA, directed by the White House under the Bush Sr. administration, asking him to join a task force designed to help Poland as it transitioned away from Soviet rule.

A wave of revolutions in the Eastern Bloc nations took place in the fall of 1989 after the Soviet Union made the decision to loosen its control. Poland was working to redevelop a market economy by that time, and many considered it an excellent test case for helping other countries enter into the world economy. Ironically, the country had operated under a market economy before the takeover in 1940, but most had forgotten or never even knew how that system functioned. Harl was asked to join a group of seven to travel there to assess the situation and make their recommendations.

“I initially said that I couldn’t do it because I was just too busy,” said Harl. “But it struck me that helping these nations transition was one of the greatest needs of the 20th and 21st centuries.”

After two weeks touring in a State Department van in what he describes as a “scripted journey,” the group made a random stop to visit an older couple who made their living as small farmers. “They were stubborn and had not given up, despite the pressures to consolidate. There were many other small farmers like them,” said Harl. Opportunities to observe the situation close at hand, coupled with nightly debates amongst the group of seven travelers, led him toward several conclusions. Harl felt that Poland needed to build a new financial system which related better to Western lending practices, and to revamp their legal system in a way that would aide a market economy.

Back at Iowa State, he met with his colleague Professor Robert Jolly. Together, they decided to create a school to train former Eastern Bloc nations in Western banking, credit and finance practices as related to agriculture. They formed the Center for International Agriculture & Finance, with Harl serving as the director and Jolly as the assistant director (followed by Dr. Arnold Paulsen and Ronald Prescott). Over the course of the next 14 years they would host 79 school programs, and would forever change the face of the Eastern Bloc agricultural economy.

The Soviet Union eventually disbanded in August 1991, and later that year Harl and Jolly hosted the first Russian language speaking school in Ames. One morning as Harl lectured on private property, he recalls “a large gentleman from Kazakhstan, a senior Communist Party official, who jumped to his feet with eyes glittering and yelled, ‘That’s immoral!’” Harl pressed him to explain himself more clearly, to which he replied, “Selling a country is like selling your mother.”

In spite of these tensions, Harl and Jolly asked the Russians to evaluate their experience on the last day of the school. “The fellow who had gotten so upset was the first one to speak,” he said. The gentleman from Kazakhstan explained to them that the group had met each night to debate their learnings. He now agreed that in order to accelerate economic growth, the former Soviet Union needed to facilitate a land market. “It was an incredible change in perspective,” said Harl, who also noted that the same gentlemen resigned his post within the Communist Party within weeks upon return from the US, and eventually became president of Moscow’s first private bank.

For Harl, the experience of facilitating these schools was “the most rewarding” experience of his career as an agricultural economist. “It was nice to do work where we could get our hands around a problem in a very direct way. And the people we worked with were so appreciative of our support,” he said.

“We went from being archenemies to sitting at the same table and discussing our shared interests.”

The Harls pledged $1.5 million toward renovations of Curtiss Hall, the building housing the administrative offices of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The Harls’ pledge created Harl Commons, a renovated space located on the ground floor of Curtiss Hall.

“Harl has shown his deep commitment to the university and beyond through his service on numerous committees and organizations, and his substantial support for a number of areas across campus. In the Ames community, he served on the first board of directors of Youth and Shelter Services of Ames, and helped form seven charitable organizations, from the American Agricultural Economics Association Foundation to the Historic Livingston Foundation. He served as faculty advisor to the VEISHEA Central Committee from 1968–71. The Harls are members of the Order of the Knoll W. M. Beardshear Society and Campanile Society and life members of the ISU Alumni Association.” - ISU Foundation

Neil E. Harl, age 88, of Ames passed away Thursday, November 4, 2021, at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames.

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