Harrington's Sort & Cull

Who Should Ag Honor on Presidents Day?

John Harrington
By  John Harrington , DTN Livestock Analyst

One of my favorite cartoons shows an old man on his deathbed, confessing to his grieving family about successes and failures: "The only thing I truly regret is that I didn't collect more crap."

Ain't it the truth.

Whether we recognize it or not, most humans, more or less, tend to be hoarders, dangerously diligent ravens that can't help stuffing their nests with invaluable shiny memories that can never, never be lost.

If you've ever been charged with emptying the house of deceased relatives (stay tuned, sooner or later), this packrat reality quickly becomes undeniable. The bottom of the dumpster won't be half covered before someone exclaims, "Why would they keep this?"

Several years ago, I drew the short straw, assigned by default to depose of the flotsam and jetsam of a great aunt who had died both childless and as a maniacal curator. From the musky masses in the basement to the stacks of water-stained cardboard boxes in the attic, you could almost hear the old house groan, "Save me from becoming the museum-that-time-forgot."

Hours into my trash-and-burn, I came upon a pioneer collection of school pictures and supplies, relics of an even older generation that has somehow previously escaped my style of heartless culling. Within a frayed folder contained cut-outs of Santa, homemade Valentines, and two scissored-silhouettes of Washington and Lincoln.

Of course, the fragile holiday junk all needed tossing, but the nostalgic stash still had enough charm to trigger one last pause before being swept into the overly delayed burn pile. This seemed especially true of the crinkled presidential profiles outlined in fading black construction paper, reminiscent of a more patriotic era when respect for political leadership had nothing to do with cashing in on a federal holiday.

For some reason, this week's celebration of Presidents Day (first established by Congress in 1885) has worked for me to give a little serious thought about which commander in chief deserves a February birthday cake from the party planners of agriculture and which maybe not so much.

Of course, long before there was Presidents Day or the clearance sales at Bernie's Furniture Warehouse or the Toyota Showroom, there was the great George Washington, soldier champion of the War of Independence, first occupant of the Executive Mansion, and our republic's first heroic icon.

So the history of Presidents Day (initially called Washington's Birthday) dates back to the year 1800, following the death of Washington in 1799. His birthday on Feb. 22 quickly became a significant day of remembrance throughout the flag-waving country.

While George's Birthday was observed for most of the 1800s, it was not until 1879 that President Rutherford B. Hayes designated it as a federal holiday. The holiday originally only applied to the District of Columbia, but in 1885, it was extended to the entire country. Soon after the Civil War, the observation of Abraham Lincoln's Birthday (Feb. 12) gradually snuck into the party tent, especially celebrated by Northern noisemakers.

The shift from Washington's Birthday to Presidents Day began in the late 1960s when Congress proposed a measure known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This law, ultimately passed in 1971, sought to shift the celebration of several federal holidays from specific dates to a series of predetermined Mondays. The official births of Washington, Lincoln, et al are now observed between Feb. 15 and 21, inclusive.

OK. So much for the easy part. It's time for the one-armed tree-trimmer to start sawing away at the wrong end of this tree's most wobbly limb. Specifically, if your farm budget was big enough for only one presidential birthday present, would you be more apt to please George or Abe?

With the deepest apologies to qualified historians and generally more thoughtful individuals, the choice in these two party invitations would be one between an inspiring cheerleader long on theory, and a visionary policymaker who actually shaped the infrastructure and enduring productivity of U.S. agriculture.

See what you think.

For starters, George Washington may have been first in war, first in peace, and first in the heart of his countrymen, but something tells me he wasn't much for being first in the tobacco field. I'm guessing when you owned more than 300 slaves, sleeping in was an option now and then. That's not to say that a youthful Washington never put his shoulder to the colonial plow or that he was not recognized for innovative and fastidious ag recordkeeping (e.g., crop rotation, barn design). Yet, when it came to being a dynamic advocate for the future of agriculture, our first president was pretty much to the manor born.

While the following quotes by Washington clearly reflect his high regard for agrarian values and pursuits (like Thomas Jefferson), most were uttered within the safe confines of a landed aristocracy not terribly concerned with long-term ag policy for the populous capable of transforming America into the productive juggernaut for the world:

-- "I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world."

-- "Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful, and most noble employment of man."

-- "I know of no pursuit in which more real and important services can be rendered to any country than by improving its agriculture, its breed of useful animals, and other branches of a husbandman's cares."

On the other hand, I would argue that Abraham Lincoln was a man of more practical eloquence when it came to the needs and demands of agriculture's great future. Maybe his real history-shaping power in that regard sprang from his impoverished, rail-splitting background, his calloused hands and lean frame taxed by, first, the unfarmable hills and gullies of Kentucky, and the marshy bottoms of Indiana. At any rate, Lincoln the visionary planner and legislator knew that it would take more than fancy words and rhetoric to unleash the country's fantastic farm and ranch potential.

Just consider a short list of his efforts to fundamentally change the face of agriculture, great legal and institutional monumentals that even today continue to drive our global leadership in terms of food and fiber:

-- The establishment of the Department of Agriculture in early 1862.

-- That spring, the passage of the Homestead Act, providing 160 acres of the public domain to any American or prospective citizen who was the head of a family or over 21 years of age.

-- A few months later, the Morrill Land Grant College Act, donating public land to the states for colleges of agriculture and the mechanical arts, became law on July 2, 1862.

-- Finally, Lincoln's farm-happy year of 1862 enacted legislation granting western land and making payments for the construction of the Union Pacific-Central Pacific railroad, essentially creating the vital trunk of infrastructure absolutely necessary for the development of the nation's ag powerhouse.

Many of you no doubt think I'm being too picky. Isn't there room enough for at least two cakes baked by agriculture on Presidents Day? Perhaps. But I still think that after a hard look at the evidence, especially in these days when we want to cluster and streamline everything, the farm community should step forward and insist that Lincoln gets the first blow at the candles.

Looking back, George probably should have just stuck with a good cherry tree lie.

John Harrington can be reached at harringtonsfotm@gmail.com

(ES/AG)

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