Henry Taylor

"…I went to Washington with the hope of helping in the further development of an economic service in the Department of Agriculture which would enable the farmer to carry on his farm operations with a clear mental vision of what was going on in the whole world…"

—Henry C. Taylor, A Farm Economist in Washington.

In 1991, the American Agricultural Economics Association (AAEA) christened Henry Charles Taylor as "dean of agricultural economics" to herald his lifelong influence on the profession. Taylor grew up on an Iowa farm during the latter 19th century, when growing concerns about agricultural commodity prices and low incomes fostered national consensus on greater equality for farmers. During the first half of the 20th century, Taylor pioneered the science of agricultural economics within the land grant university system and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Over the course of his life, he headed the Farm Foundation, the American Country Life Association, and other organizations with similar commitments to rural America.

Taylor received a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1901 and joined their economics faculty the following year. Much of his research explored how economics could be applied to ease the plight of struggling American farmers. He served as the first professor of agricultural economics in a land grant institution, wrote the first agricultural economics textbook in 1905, helped found the University of Wisconsin's Department of Agricultural Economics in 1909, and chaired that department for a decade.

Pioneering Economic Research in USDA

In 1919, Taylor was invited by Secretary of Agriculture David Houston to broaden USDA's farm management activities and consolidate its disparate economic research efforts into one agency. Appointed chief of both the Office of Farm Management and Farm Economics and the Bureau of Markets and Crop Estimates, he worked with bureau chiefs, economists, farmer advocates, and others to foster his vision for a USDA-based economics research agency.

The Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE), a predecessor of the Economic Research Service (ERS), was inaugurated under Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace, who appointed Taylor its first chief in 1922. During Taylor's three-year tenure, he established many of the economic research and service activities currently undertaken by ERS. His research agenda emphasized data collection and studies on farm production, prices, costs, markets, exports, and demand for major farm commodities, and he initiated several studies on the demand for alternative crops.

Taylor promoted practical, accessible, and beneficial research for farmers. In 1923, the BAE sponsored the first USDA Outlook Conference, a major annual event that continues to this day. Under Taylor's leadership, the BAE produced the first analyses of the economic impacts of grain standards, export tariffs, and other newly promulgated USDA farm policies. However, as disagreements over farm policy in Congress and USDA grew, Taylor left the department in 1925.

Leadership in Other Agriculture Organizations

After leaving the USDA, Taylor served in a variety of national and international leadership posts. Nonprofit institutions interested in advancing the welfare of rural people began forming early in the 20th century, and their missions matched Taylor's aspirations. The founders of the Farm Foundation (1933) for example, sought to make rural life more economically rewarding and "wanted farmers to prosper and wanted all rural people to have access to all the social benefits enjoyed by their urban counterparts." They selected Taylor as the first director in 1935, a post he held for over a decade.

Taylor also served as president of the American Country Life Association (1919) and presided over one of its landmark conferences, "National Policies Affecting Country Life," held in Blacksburg, Virginia, in 1933. In conjunction with the conference, Taylor authored an influential two-part series on agricultural policy in the Association's magazine, Rural Life, illuminating the wide spectrum of agricultural policy approaches being considered and implemented in the United States, and confronting fallacies associated with several of them.

Also in the early 1930s, Taylor served as the United States Member of the Permanent Committee of the International Institute of Agriculture in Rome, Italy, under an appointment by President Roosevelt. Taylor wrote numerous books and articles about agricultural economics over the course of his career and coauthored a comprehensive history in 1952. He remained active in the profession until his death in 1969.

Selected References

About Henry C. Taylor:

  • Parsons, Kenneth. "Henry Charles Taylor, 1873-1969: Organizer and First Head of USDA's BAE," published by the American Association of Agricultural Economists, Choices, 2nd quarter, 1991.
  • Wunderlich, Gene. American Country Life, published by University Press of America: Lanham, MD, 2003.
  • Shaars, Marvin. "The Story of Agricultural Economics, 1909-1972," Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, 1972.

By Henry C. and Anne Dewees Taylor:

  • Taylor, Henry Charles. 1992 (Abridged edition). A Farm Economist in Washington 1919-1925. Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  • Taylor, Henry C. 1970. Tarpleywick: A Century of Iowa Farming, Ames: Iowa State University Press.
  • Taylor, Anne Dewees. 1958. "Bibliographic Guide to the Writings of Henry C. Taylor, 1893-1957," Agricultural History, Vol. 32, no. 3, July.
  • Taylor, Henry C., and Anne Dewees Taylor. 1952. The Story of Agricultural Economics in the United States, 1840-1932, State College Press, Ames, Iowa.
  • Taylor, Henry C. (coauthor). 1943. World Trade in Agricultural Products. Macmillan Company, New York.
  • Taylor, Henry C. 1925. Outlines of Agricultural Economics. Macmillan Company, New York.
  • Taylor, Henry C. 1919. Agricultural Economics. Macmillan Company, New York.
  • Taylor, Henry C. 1905. An Introduction to the Study of Agricultural Economics, Macmillan Company, New York.