Neil Harl, Iowa state professor who fought for farmers, dies at 88

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Neil Harl, a professor of agricultural law and economics at Iowa State University who pushed for bankruptcy reforms during the 1980s farm crisis, died Thursday in Ames. He was 88 years old.

Harl, who was the Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Economics at Iowa State University, had a long academic career, but he is perhaps best known for two things: devising a plan to slow the demise of family farms. and lead the struggle to block the sale of ISU’s WOI-TV in the 1990s.

In the 1980s, as record interest rates pushed farm debt payments to unsustainable levels and a US embargo on grain exports to the Soviet Union squeezed markets, Harl urged policy makers banks and Congress to allow farmers to restructure their debt. His proposals helped create a path for farmers to continue operating and lenders to recoup some of what was owed to them without resorting to foreclosure.

“He was a very strong advocate for agriculture and farmers in Iowa during the farm crisis of the 1980s,” said Terry Branstad, governor of Iowa during what remains Iowa’s worst financial crisis since. the Great Depression, affecting it more deeply than the Great Depression of 2007-2009. Recession.

Farmers had invested heavily in farmland and equipment during a 1970s agricultural boom. In Iowa, the ensuing crisis saw the value of farmland drop 62% to $ 652 per acre in 1987, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. story. Farm bankruptcies created a downward spiral, with values ​​falling as more land came on the market, creating a glut.

Iowa has lost thousands of jobs in farm equipment manufacturing and food processing, pushing the state’s unemployment rate to more than 9%. The state’s population experienced its largest declines on record, dropping 4.7% between 1980 and 1990 as people moved to seek work elsewhere. From 1982 to 1987, the number of farms in Iowa declined by 10,233, according to the United States Census of Agriculture.

Described as tireless and brilliant, Harl devised a plan to stop or slow bankruptcies and foreclosures that sent shockwaves through Washington, a consultant said at the time.

Harl’s proposal had two main elements: a government to “lower” interest rates on farm loans and a land “reservoir” to keep foreclosed properties off the market and stabilize land values.

When the Farm Credit System Relief Act was passed, it included parts of Harl’s plan, although he felt it did not go far enough.

The idea was that “everyone gets their hair cut,” with lenders, government and farmers each absorbing a share of the loss, said John Lawrence, vice president of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

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In Iowa, Harl supported legislation that created two important laws to help farmers, said Neil Hamilton, former director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center. One required lenders and farmers facing foreclosure to go through mediation. Another gave farmers the right to catch up on overdue payments, instead of “immediately speeding up all the debt,” said Hamilton, a former Harl’s student.

The mediation requirement “stopped time and allowed farmers and lenders to have conversations” that could lead to debt restructuring, loan term extension or cancellation of a loan. part of it, Hamilton said.

Created as a result of the law, the Iowa Mediation Service, a hotline for farmers facing financial difficulties, continues.

This “is part of Dr Harl’s legacy, creating a set of legal protections for farmers and also a more cooperative and understanding approach to farm credit,” said Hamilton.

Helped lead the fight against the sale of WOI

While Harl worked closely with Branstad to pressure the White House and Congress during the farm crisis, the two paths parted 10 years later when the State Board of Regents voted to sell WOI-TV, the ISU commercial station created in the 1950s.

Harl and a group of other teachers, alumni, and friends formed the Iowans for WOI-TV and fought an uphill battle to block the sale. The group, using the money raised through a formidable fundraising network, sued the regents, arguing the sale violated state law.

The group won in district court, but saw the case overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court. He took his fight to the United States District Court in Washington, DC, in an attempt to overturn the approval of the sale by federal regulators, but lost.

Speaking this week, Branstad said Harl has had a distinguished career.

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“He will be sadly missed by the farmers of Iowa because he was someone who truly understood agriculture,” said the longest-serving governor of Iowa, who served from 1983 to 1999 and from 2011 to 2017 .

US Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said few people know more about agricultural policy than Harl. “He was aggressive in defining the problem and coming up with solutions to the problem,” Grassley said Tuesday.

Harl has also gained an international reputation as director of the Center for International Agricultural Finance. The center brought financial and banking officials from around the world, especially the former Soviet bloc, to Iowa to study Western banking practices, including central banking, lending, regulation, and other topics.

Bank officials have attended seminars at the ISU and completed internships with Iowa banks and regulators.

In addition to bringing foreign bankers to Iowa, Harl and other center employees have traveled extensively through eastern and central Europe giving seminars and classes on banking. In 1994, he led a team of ISU professors who advised then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma on the plan to privatize the newly independent country.

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Harl’s colleagues held him in such high regard that many signed petitions for him to be named ISU president when W. Robert Parks retired in 1985. Harl said he was delighted to hear that he was not a finalist.

“I hadn’t realized until then that I wasn’t ready to give up what I was doing,” he said later.

Humble beginnings as the son of a sharecropper

Harl’s global travels have taken him far from Seymour, a short distance from the Iowa-Missouri border, where Harl grew up the son of a sharecropper who went through the Depression. Starting with a spring lamb, Harl developed his own breeding operation as a youngster and made $ 2,200 when he sold in 1951 to enroll in ISU.

Harl had planned to return to the farm after graduation, but instead spent two years in the military and one year as a field editor for Wallaces Farmer magazine in Des Moines.

While on an assignment for the magazine, he met John O’Byrne, professor at the Center for Agricultural Law at the University of Iowa. The conference convinced him to enroll in law school and major in agricultural law.

Harl went on to study law for a doctorate in agricultural economics at ISU, where he began teaching in 1964. Over the years he has written hundreds of articles and books, including a law treatise. agricultural 15 volumes and 10,000 pages.

He was the founding president of the American Agricultural Law Association and president of the American Agricultural Economics Association.

“He was truly remarkable, and Iowa and the nation are doing better because of Neil,” said Paul Lasley, an ISU sociology professor who worked with Harl and other ISU professors to help. Iowa farmers.

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In 1952, Harl married Darlene Harris, the Salvationian of the couple’s class at Seymour High. They had two sons: James of Denver, Colorado, and Rodney of Bedford, New Hampshire.

Farming after her family was Harl’s next love. He and his wife purchased 1,000 acres in Appanoose County, including the 1863 family plot he was born on, and other plots his family had cultivated as sharecroppers throughout his youth.

Harl and his wife wanted to create a gathering place for undergraduates, and in 2013 dedicated the Neil and Darlene Harl Commons on the ISU campus.

Visitations will be from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday at Adams Funeral Home, 502 Douglas Ave., Ames. The funeral will be on Saturday at noon at the First United Methodist Church, 516 Kellogg Ave., also in Ames. Interment will be in the Iowa State University cemetery.

Preceding Harl in death were his wife and brother, Richard. He is survived by his two sons, five grandchildren and two sisters, Marjorie Sutter of Ames and Merna M. Donald of Waterloo.

Harl’s family are asking that in lieu of gifts, donations be sent to ISU to support the Dr. Neil Harl Opportunity Award No. 270620, a scholarship fund.

Former Des Moines Register editor Thomas R. O’Donnell contributed to this article.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, environment and energy for the Registry. Contact her at [email protected] or 515-284-8457.


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