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EDITOR’S NOTE: Bob Bergland, who died Sunday at the age of 90, oversaw the Department of Agriculture under President Jimmy Carter. Carter was popular with farmers in the 1976 election, says John Hansen, because of his own status as a farmer and the belief that he would push higher price supports. Carter later disappointed farmers and congressional Democrats with lower-than-promised price supports. That “betrayal,” Hansen says, was the start of the shift of rural voters toward the Republican Party.
On a cold day, I share my memories of Secretary of Ag Bob Bergland. He was smart, likeable, and a good and decent person. The real conflict he faced was not the one described below between farmers and consumers. Rather, it was the conflict between his Farmers Union roots and successful campaign positions of 90% of parity, and his college roommate Vice President Walter Mondale and his strong ties to the Cargill family who ran farm policy in the Carter White House.
I was in the Senate hearing room in 1977 when Secretary of Ag Bob Bergland, with dark rings under his eyes who had been up to the White House until 10:30 the night before, presented the Carter’s recommendations to the Senate Ag Committee for price support loan levels for ag commodities similar to the previous administration, and a full dollar lower than expected and what the Senate Democrats wanted.
After a barrage of negative questioning by Senate Democrats, in a barely audible voice, Bergland said that if he were a free agent in this matter, the program he would be bringing before the committee today would be substantially different. Senator George McGovern was so angry he physically pushed people aside as he stormed out of the Senate Hearing room at its conclusion.
Bob Bergland knew that the Cargill-based program the Carter administration was supporting would mean many farmers would be forced out of business. Instead of resigning, he became the long suffering loyal soldier. As the fury of betrayed farmers unfolded, I saw loyal Bob Bergland eat one Rolaids after another at a meeting with angry farmers. The good and decent man knew the farm policy was a violation of his own personal instincts and policy positions.
That Senate hearing was the day the American Ag Movement was really born. Carter betrayed his campaign pledges of supporting 90% of parity. It was Carter’s telephone call to me with that promise that caused me to publicly endorse him for President in 1976 when former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris ceased his campaign. I headed up the Harris for President campaign in Nebraska. Many disenchanted Republican farmers voted for peanut farmer Jimmy Carter based on their pocket-book interests with the promise of higher loan rates and a president that was going to champion their interests.
It is my view that that Carter betrayal created a loss of confidence in Democrats in rural America that the Democratic Party has never recovered from. As a former state leader of the American Ag Movement, I spoke to thousands of farmers in Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. Their financial pain was strongly entwined with their sense of betrayal. I shared their view, and when I told them I felt their pain and sense of betrayal, I was sincere. Jimmy Carter was elected with great hopes for real change, and the support of rural America. He lost re-election when those dashed hopes were reflected at the ballot box. I have often wondered how the course of history would have changed if Secretary of Ag Bob Bergland had been allowed to use his own good judgment. I will wager rural America would not be so red.
John K. Hansen is president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.