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A Voice From the Past 

by Joel Smith & r & Farm subsidies, overproduction, industrialization. We know these things get people pretty worked up around here, so we figure you should check out William J. Spillman and the Birth of Agricultural Economics, a biography and treatise on the life of one of the 20th century's most important (though overlooked) agricultural thinkers.


Written by Cheney resident Laurie Winn Carlson, and published a few months ago, the book chronicles the Horatio Alger-esque life of William Spillman from his humble beginnings as a Missouri farm boy to his ground-breaking professorship at what is now Washington State University (where a farm and an annual wheat exhibition are named after him), all the way through his work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


To those outside of agriculture, this may sound dull. Carlson asserts, however, that the effects of Spillman's life and work reach far beyond his specialized field -- into science and politics and, eventually, history. His importance, she says, lies in the way in which he used scientific means to create solutions to practical problems.


For instance, Spillman identified the mathematical model known as the "law of diminishing returns" (now a staple of economic theory) in a piece in which he challenged the popular wisdom about the use of fertilizers to increase farming yields. As a professor in Pullman, his first research project resulted in a scientific manifesto designed to help local farmers through the disastrous wheat harvest of 1893.


In the early part of the 20th century, Spillman developed new wheat varieties better suited to the climate in Eastern Washington, laying the groundwork for an American school of genetic science. Working with the USDA, Spillman spearheaded a congressional probe that resulted in the Agricultural Extension Service seen at ag universities throughout the country.


Like former Kansas newspaperman George Pyle in the accompanying story, Spillman cautioned the federal government against overproduction, warning that it threatened to ruin rural economies.


And like Pyle, Carlson understands that farming goes beyond science and policy -- that it's full of stories and meaning. Her writing is robust and often lively, bringing home the human significance of the American farm.

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