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William J. Spillman (1863–1931), considered the founder of agricultural economics, was a scientist and popular agricultural educator for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). As the author of more than three hundred articles and four books, Spillman left a lasting mark on American agriculture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with his pioneering solutions for the problems of overproduction and low prices.
Spillman grew up in Lawrence County, Missouri, and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Missouri in Columbia. In this biography, Laurie Winn Carlson looks at Spillman’s career as he moved from Missouri to Washington, D.C., where his concepts shaped what became the agricultural New Deal and, eventually, the current farm allotment programs. By placing Spillman’s story within the larger context of American agricultural history, Carlson takes readers inside the USDA during the years our nation’s agricultural policy took shape. She studies the development of the field of genetics, the conflicts regarding agricultural education and the creation of the Cooperative Extension Service, the overproduction crisis after World War I and Spillman’s ideas for allotment, and the commercial fertilizer industry and the Law of Diminishing Returns. She also looks at efforts to restrict research, the censorship of publications directed toward farmers, and personal rivalries within the USDA.
This examination of agriculture through Spillman’s eyes reveals that industrialized agriculture was not inevitable but a carefully crafted ideology that farmers were pushed to embrace. Although highly contested by farmers as well as employees within the USDA, industry, government, politics, and technology, industrialized agriculture moved people off the land, replacing them with large-scale mechanized production.
An iconoclast within the USDA bureaucracy, Spillman was a “farm evangelist,” taking his message of diversified farming across the country. He believed that farmers should integrate livestock and rotate crops, rather than continue the monoculture production that was evolving due to the increasing industrialization of farming. Those issues, as well as the Law of Diminishing Returns, sustainability, and popular education, all matters to which Spillman devoted his career, are more important today than ever.