William J. Spillman and the Birth of Agricultural Economics

William J. Spillman and the Birth of Agricultural Economics

William J. Spillman and the Birth of Agricultural Economics

William J. Spillman and the Birth of Agricultural Economics


William J. Spillman (1863 1931), considered the founder of agricultural economics, was a scientist and popular agricultural educator for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). As the author of more than three hundred articles and four books, Spillman left a lasting mark on American agriculture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with his pioneering solutions for the problems of overproduction and low prices.

Spillman grew up in Lawrence County, Missouri, and received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Missouri in Columbia. In this biography, Laurie Winn Carlson looks at Spillman's career as he moved from Missouri to Washington, D.C., where his concepts shaped what became the agricultural New Deal and, eventually, the current farm allotment programs. By placing Spillman's story within the larger context of American agricultural history, Carlson takes readers inside the USDA during the years our nation's agricultural policy took shape. She studies the development of the field of genetics, the conflicts regarding agricultural education and the creation of the Cooperative Extension Service, the overproduction crisis after World War I and Spillman's ideas for allotment, and the commercial fertilizer industry and the Law of Diminishing Returns. She also looks at efforts to restrict research, the censorship of publications directed toward farmers, and personal rivalries within the USDA.

This examination of agriculture through Spillman's eyes reveals that industrialized agriculture was not inevitable but a carefully crafted ideology that farmers were pushed to embrace. Although highly contested by farmers as well as employees within the USDA, industry, government, politics, and technology, industrialized agriculture moved people off the land, replacing them with large-scale mechanized production.

An iconoclast within the USDA bureaucracy, Spillman was a farm evangelist, taking his message of diversified farming across the country. He believed that farmers should integrate livestock and rotate crops, rather than continue the monoculture production that was evolving due to the increasing industrialization of farming. Those issues, as well as the Law of Diminishing Returns, sustainability, and popular education, all matters to which Spillman devoted his career, are more important today than ever."


William Jasper Spillman is an elusive figure. Although his name is recognized by scientists and economists, the man and his life have faded from memory. Washington State University, in Pullman, Washington, recognizes his contributions made there in the 1890s with an experimental farm, the Spillman Farm, as well as with an annual wheat exhibition tour, the Spillman Farm Tour. A bronze plaque commemorating Spillman hangs in the foyer of Johnson Hall, one of the agriculture classroom buildings on campus, but few students or faculty know anything about the man. Therefore, when my dissertation adviser, David Coon, suggested I consider the man as a potential research subject, I hesitated because I had never heard of him. A trip to the Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections division of Holland Library at Washington State University gave me an overview: Spillman had come to the school just as it was being launched as a state landgrant agricultural college and had indeed developed a variety of wheat that improved farmers’ yields as well as the credibility of the new agricultural college. But he was at Pullman for only a few years, so I did not see a lot of potential in looking at his life. Plant genetics in eastern Washington in 1900 did not seem to offer much in the way of historical questions and answers; I sought a larger topic—something with conflict, triumph, loss, even corruption and vice, elements that make history intriguing and worth the writing.

So when I was thumbing through a copy of Upton Sinclair’s critique of higher education, The Goose-Step: A Study of American Education, I stopped short at Sinclair’s comment: “One of the government employees who is not a corporation hireling is Professor W. J. Spillman, chief of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, and editor of a farm paper.”

1. Sinclair, Goose-Step, 198.

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