As we wrestle with farm subsidy reform and face the likelihood of planting a crop before we know the implications of the next farm bill, agriculture would be well served if our nation’s leaders took a cue from Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln respected and recognized the importance of farmers—not just for their numbers, but for their role in the longterm success of our nation.
At a time when the U.S. was embroiled in the Civil War, the 16th President’s big-picture focus ushered in reforms and a new way of thinking for agriculture. Six months before the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves and three years before the Civil War ended, Lincoln signed legislation that expanded and transformed American farming.
On May 15, 1862, he formed the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Five days later, he signed the Homestead Act, making it possible for qualified individuals to claim 160 acres of public land.
Later that summer, on July 1, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, creating a transcontinental railroad at a time when it was uncertain that our nation would continue to exist as one entity. The next day, he signed the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, providing public lands for today’s ag schools.
All this from a President who was preoccupied with the political dissension of the day and the pressures of the war. Lincoln rose above the turmoil, took a long look at our nation’s needs and executed steps that underpinned a "new" agriculture and future success. It’s time to take our cues from the man who spent his boyhood on a 30-acre Kentucky farm so filled with hills and gullies that only 14 acres could be cultivated.
- January 2013