The best ag economist I ‘never’ met


Before I was lucky enough to keep myself in suds and my family in socks with this weekly effort, my previous boss liked to remind me that I had “the best job in ag journalism.”

He was right because I spent most of my time and his money writing profiles of the political and intellectual pile drivers in American agriculture. I never got to St. Paul, Minn., however, to chronicle the powerful reach and long legacy of Willard W. Cochrane, a groundbreaking ag economist who served politicians (to name one without naming him: JFK), farmers and the nation with great devotion, little fanfare and some heartbreak for more than 50 years.

Old school

If there was an old school of ag economics, Cochran — along with fellow giants like Harold Breimyer, Don Paarlberg and John Kenneth Galbraith — helped lay its foundation. In fact, Cochrane was just plain old school.

Any personal success, he explained, was a bonus to the goal of trying “to improve myself.” Degrees from California and Montana, then a Ph.D. from Harvard, went a long way toward that.

After service in World War II and stints with the U.S. government and Penn State, Cochrane moved to the University of Minnesota in 1951 where he spent most of his intellectual life. It was there that he wrote what would be his most influential book, Farm Prices: Myth and Reality, in 1958.

Even if you don’t know the book, you know its central thesis: “The average farmer is on a treadmill,” he offered. “But by running faster he does not reach the goal of increased returns. The treadmill simply turns over faster.”

The book, and that observation, caught the notice of John F. Kennedy and he brought Cochrane (and Galbraith) into his 1960 presidential campaign. It was a smart choice for someone who said pronounced farmer as “fahmah.”

Cochrane served the candidate and, later, the President, well. According to the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, “He is credited with feeding Kennedy the memorable line: ‘The farmer is the only businessman in our economy who has to buy everything at retail, sell everything at wholesale, and pay the freight both ways.’”

Ag economics

His job in the Kennedy Administration was a new one, director of ag economics — later renamed chief economist — at USDA, a position created by the secretary of agriculture, Orville Freeman, the former governor of Minnesota.

Freeman and Cochrane didn’t stop there. In short order they reconstituted the disbanded Bureau of Agricultural Economics into the new Economic Research Service. In June 2011, ERS celebrated its 50th anniversary as the world’s premier ag data and analysis shop.

Cochrane, whose eye never wandered far from rural America’s “burden of bounty,” price-depressing overproduction, advocated for a surplus-draining food program to feed the poor.

The idea wasn’t new, but Kennedy created its modern version, food stamps, by executive order on Feb. 2, 1961.

Cochrane’s push led JFK to give its management to USDA, where it remains today. Price-depressing ag surpluses also convinced Cochrane that government programs, especially those that paid farmers not to plant — heresy in the 1950s — rather than force government to store unneeded, market-flattening surpluses, were vital in the 1960s.


Political opponents labeled the policy communism and him a communist. The name-calling stung and, in 1965, Cochrane left USDA for Minnesota where he continued to teach, research and write until his death, at 97, this past March 5.

(Read more of Cochrane and view a 2011 YouTube video of him commenting on his role at ERS at

The greatest. Richard Levins, his longtime colleague and biographer, sees Cochrane “as arguably the greatest ag economist ever.” Consider his achievements, suggests Levins in a telephone interview April 17.

“He wrote one of the most important books of ag economics ever, is the father of USDA’s Economic Research Service and was the driving force behind a government program, Food Stamps, that almost 50 years after its founding, in 2009, lowered the number Americans living in poverty by 9 percent. What ag economist can match that?”

None I ever met and I met all of ’em — except, arguably, the best.

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