Even when he was booed during speeches, the target of angry farmers in the late 1970s, Bob Bergland remained stoic — a Norwegian Minnesotan through and through.
After fleeing the Agriculture Department as about 50 farmers broke in and demanded to see him, Bergland vowed to understand their grievances while standing by decisions he felt were made in the best interest of the country.
When a negative story about Bergland appeared in a national newspaper, he would echo some version of what he often said to his children and later grandchildren and great-grandchildren:
“Always have a positive attitude. Always do your homework before making a decision. Then you can be comfortable with it and defend it.”
As a liberal Democratic congressman and President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of agriculture, he was a zealous advocate for America’s consumers as well as its farmers. Bergland died Sunday at a nursing home in his hometown, Roseau, Minn. He was 90.
Bergland’s daughter, Linda Vatnsdal, said he’d recently been hospitalized for an infection and sepsis.
Before representing Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District — a role he held from 1971 to 1977 — Bergland was a wheat farmer raising his seven children on land just south of the Canadian border. After several bad-weather crop failures, he and his wife, Helen, moved the family to Florida where he took jobs as a construction laborer and carpenter. Fired for union organizing, he returned to farming in Minnesota and became a Farmers Union organizer.
In 1961, Orville Freeman, President John F. Kennedy’s secretary of agriculture, named Bergland chairman of the Minnesota Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two years later, he was promoted to Midwest regional director of the service, a position he held for five years.
He lost his first race for Congress on the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party ticket in 1968 but upset a Republican in 1970 and was re-elected three times. He was named to the Carter Cabinet before serving his last term.
Serving the president
When President Carter ordered a U.S. grain embargo against the Soviet Union in 1980 after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in late 1979, Secretary of Agriculture Bergland was dispatched to the Midwest during that 1980 campaign year to try to calm angry farmers. His unflappable demeanor was a valuable asset.
Vice President Walter Mondale recalled Sunday that neither he nor Bergland liked the grain embargo. “I don’t think it was good policy,” he told the Associated Press. “This is going to mean Russians are going to buy their grain somewhere else. ... I urged the president not to do it. He felt he had to do it.”
Vatnsdal said though her father sometimes disagreed, he felt he served “at the pleasure of the president.”
As a congressman and Cabinet member, Bergland spoke of the years he couldn’t buy milk for his own children and how it upset him to hear others criticize struggling Americans.
“I know what it’s like to be poor,” he told the New York Times in 1978. “I know those times when we lost a crop and couldn’t find steady work around Roseau.”
Vatnsdal, the second oldest of Bergland’s children, said he was proud of his roots and proud to be a Minnesotan.
Still, as secretary of agriculture, he believed in making decisions for the country as a whole, rather than his home state.
“His view was always global first — what’s best for the world?” Vatnsdal remembered. “Secondly, he asked what’s best for the country, then what’s best for his state, then what’s best personally.”
No quick fix
In an era when small family farms were being gobbled up by agribusiness, and when soaring inflation was corroding the purchasing power of millions of Americans, Bergland angered many farmers by tempering his advocacy of farm subsidies and price supports and offering evenhanded encouragements for inflation-weary consumers.
“He believed in a smaller family farm and understood the plight of the family farm,” Vatnsdal said. “But he also understood that progress will always come.”
As a practical matter, the secretary of agriculture may provide crop and land-use subsidies to farmers, promote price supports and grant farm loans in lean years. Contrary to popular assumption, however, the secretary is not simply a farmers’ advocate and has no mandate to ensure the welfare of individual farmers.
“Compounding the secretary’s problem with the farmers is the fact that while all farmers want profits, few of them can agree on what should be done to insure them,” Seth S. King wrote in a New York Times Magazine profile of Bergland in 1978.
Demanding higher price supports and calling unsuccessfully for a nationwide farm strike, hundreds of farmers went to Washington, D.C., on tractors, camper vans and pickups in 1978. They broke into the Department of Agriculture building, occupied Bergland’s office, and wandered through the Capitol before confronting Bergland at a committee hearing.
“There’s no quick fix or free lunch in this business,” he told them. “It’s not the role of the federal government to guarantee all farmers a profit year after year.”
The people’s department
As agriculture secretary, Bergland directed a department of 83,000 employees whose work affected virtually every U.S. taxpayer and consumer. Among his signature achievements, Bergland helped steer the Farm Act of 1977 through Congress, creating a grain reserve that became a primary weapon to flatten boom-and-bust cycles. Under the plan, the government paid farmers to store grain on their own farms, holding it during fat years when prices were low and marketing it in lean years when supplies were low and prices rose.
He also created an assistant secretary of agriculture position to protect consumer interests. “It was my idea and my appointment,” he said. “The Agriculture Department is going to be all the people’s department, not just the farmers.”
Leaving on a good note
Before leaving office, Bergland unveiled a study that drew a relatively rosy picture of the nation’s farm economy. World demand for U.S. grain had burgeoned, he said, and most of the price-depressing surpluses had been sold. He also said that food production was nearing capacity and that family farms with annual incomes of about $150,000 were the most efficient.
“He was a strong believer that farmers produce food for the world and that survival is dependent on the farmers,” his daughter said.
After his Washington years, Bergland was president of Farmland-Eaton World Trade in 1981-82. He then became executive vice president and general manager of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association until his retirement in 1993.
Bergland then moved back to Roseau, where he enjoyed woodworking, boating and playing with his 15 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. In his later years, he kept up with current affairs, often feeling frustrated that negotiation, compromise and civility in politics seemed to be values of the past, Vatnsdal said.
“He was a humble man,” she said. “He would want to be remembered for being kind, for seeing others’ perspectives.”
In addition to Vatnsdal, Bergland is survived by three sons, Franklyn, Allan and Bill; another daughter, Dianne Dahl; and a brother, Glen.
Funeral services are planned for Saturday.
Staff writer Pamela Huey, the Associated Press and New York Times contributed to this report.