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The USDA Legacy: From the New Deal to Silent Spring

by Pete Daniel

From time to time politicians, lobbyists, and businessmen have visited the National Museum of American History to propose an exhibit that "tells the story of American agriculture." Their "story" features science and technology--machines, chemicals, genetic engineering. They want, in effect, a trade show, a venue for giant tractors and harvesting machinery and gee whiz stories of progress. No farmers appear in their strangely impersonal scenario. Lacking are the tension, grit, anguish, bitterness, stubbornness and sense of accomplishment-or failure- that real farmers experience.

I have gently reminded these well meaning promoters that the National Museum of American History is, well, a history museum. I have spent twenty years as a curator conceptualizing an exhibit titled, "The Rural South and the Nation: From George Washington to Jimmy Carter," which would touch on nearly every major theme in U.S. history. I tell them of the cotton gins we have collected, of artifacts from the tobacco, sugar, and rice cultures, and of our Oral History of Southern Agriculture. I even mention the books that I have done that bear on the subject. I'm never sure who is more ill-at-ease when I finish talking, the visitors pitching agribusiness or the museum administrators and development staff who watch the agribusiness dollars disappear. No one has offered a penny for an exhibit on the rural South.

"The Story of American Agriculture" concept is instructive, for the lack of farmers and the uncritical promotion of science and technology combines with a notion of inevitability. The present system was preordained, the argument goes. Backward yields to forward, hand labor yields to machines, chemicals replace hoes and cultivation, skilled farmers replace unskilled, large farms replace small ones. Modern agriculture, however, was by no means an accident. Farm lobby groups, the USDA and its Agricultural Research Service (ARS), land grant universities, experiment stations, county agents, home demonstration agents, county USDA bureaucrats, and county elites created modern agribusiness. In one sense, agribusiness is the USDA's legacy.

Until the New Deal's Agricultural Adjustment Administration(Triple A) was created in 1933, the federal presence in the South had been minimal, primarily experiment stations and the federal extension service. The New Deal inundated the South under federal programs; one person counted twenty-seven in one county. With the Triple A came the intended and unintended consequences that undermined the old tenure system and erected the structure of agribusiness. Landlords often hoarded federal money till they could afford tractors, some county committees favored big operators, tenants and sharecroppers dropped away, and the local elite controlled the distribution of benefits. It is a testament to unintended consequences that allotments, basically a right to grow a crop, became commodified and could be sold or rented and that added value to the land.1

It is generally known that in the late 1930s, bureaucratic battles shook the floors of the USDA as Midwestern intellectuals wrestled with proponents of emerging agribusiness and that by the late 1930s the champions of small farmers lost out. During World War II the victors consolidated their power.

By the 1950s farmers suffered bureaucratic arrogance and pettiness in their dealings with the USDA. In one southerner's opinion, the USDA programs were "overlapping, and more frequently than otherwise confusing." Alabamian L. C. Salter complained to Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson in November 1953 that "uniformity prevailed regardless of the region, the area, or soil types, types of farming, climatic conditions, or the recommendations of the agricultural experiment stations of the state land grant agricultural colleges." Louisiana farmer Wilbert McReynolds succinctly explained to Benson in the mid-1950s that farm failures "may be the result of trying to make an Iowa plan fit Louisiana."2

Benson awaits his biographer, but his autobiographies, in their drumming of free enterprise, free association of cliches, blindness to African Americans, disregard for small farmers, and loathing of southern congressmen suggests a man not only poisoned against the South but also vastly ignorant of it. He personified the soulless future of American agriculture. Secretary Benson, USDA bureaucrats, lobbying groups, land grant universities, and experiment stations envisioned a rural bourgeoisie that lived in neat houses, farmed with the latest machines, and consumed clothes, furniture, and appliances the same as urban folks. In the fifties few rural southerners, especially those from the ranks of tenants and sharecroppers, could aspire to this life.3

After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 when some African Americans pushed for integration and voting rights, USDA bureaucrats manipulated policy to deny credit to black farm owners even as wealthy white farmers were pocketing large checks for the Soil Bank or other programs. The USDA's racism has been legendary, and there are still discrimination cases pending.4

In the 1950s most people complaining to the USDA were not sharecroppers or tenants, many of whom had already left the land, but landowners and sometimes local businessmen and bankers. Many saw contradictions in agricultural programs. "For over 10 years now we have been paying farmers vast sums to produce nothing or to produce crops that are not needed," Harold G. Vanderlee wrote from Tyler Texas in 1959. "At the same time we have been spending large sums on irrigation projects to bring additional land under cultivation." Even as more farmers left the land and the acreage allotments of others were reduced, experiment stations and land grant universities spent inordinate amounts of funds discovering ways to grow more per acre. Neither the Soil Bank nor allotment cuts diminished the mounting surplus. There were not enough markets to soak up U.S. commodities.5

In 1959, the USDA issued a report on recipients of storage payments in excess of $500,000 to handlers of grain, rice, and cotton. The C-G-F Grain Company of Fort Worth headed the list with $14.8 million with Cargill close behind with $13.2 million. The Federal Compress & Warehouse Company of Memphis received $4.4 million with the Panhandle Compress & Warehouse Company of Lubbock taking in $1.1 million. In 1955, Federal Compress had received almost $11 million. In 1958, the Rice Growers Association of California received $871,637 and the Arkansas Rice Growers Cooperative $826,133. Even the storage of butter, cheese, and milk cost nearly a million dollars in 1958.6

Thus, at the top of the chain the large commodity handlers earned millions for storing a surplus that grew despite acreage reduction and the Soil Bank while the USDA and land grant colleges taught farmers to produce more. The USDA attracted a large constituency because it gave so many agricultural interests what they wanted. It sought to please both the farmer and the processor, the growers and the companies that sold machines and chemicals, the scientists who increased production and the companies that stored the surplus. William A. Anderson complained to True Morse in 1955 that such contradictions had "caused more damage to the state of Tennessee than Civil War."7

Even as the grain bins were bursting in the early 1960s, ARS scientists and administrators were insisting that the country's survival, indeed, that of the world, depended on increasing production. Were farmers forced to give up chemicals, they warned, the country faced starvation. Although pests through the ages had taken a toll on crops, in the post-World War II environment of synthetic pesticides such predation would lead to world hunger.

As farmers left the land and machines took over, some rural people turned to humor. Carl Stanley wrote from Montgomery in the winter of 1955 observing the diminishing number of horses. He heard a story at lunch, he began, when a man announced, "There's a parade down town and Lady Godiva is going to ride a horse naked." Good" said his friend. "Let's go down to the parade. I haven't see a horse in a long while."8

If engineers and managers came of age in the Progressive Era, and bureaucrats ruled the New Deal, entomologists flourished in the era of DDT and 2,4-D after World War II. Both DDT and 2,4-D emerged from World War II as miracle chemicals. Scientists saw in such chemicals a new millennium and encouraged widespread application. Long after some pesticides had been found to cause serious environmental and human problems, chemical companies bullied federal bureaucrats to keep them on the market. Rachel Carson challenged this mentalite with Silent Spring, and she started a storm of controversy--and the modern environmental movement.

The significance of chemical research can easily be lost among the more spectacular weaponry developed during World War II, but to chemical companies, government scientists, farmers, and lawn lovers, synthetic pesticides were seductive. Like so many advances in science and technology, synthetic chemicals epitomized the paradox of creation and destruction. DDT emerged from the war as a miracle chemical, and scientists synthesized a list of chlorinated hydrocarbons such as chlordane, endrin, heptachlor, and toxaphene. Captured German scientific records revealed organophosphates, nerve gases, which led to the manufacture of parathion, malathion, and TEPP. Scientists also developed 2,4-D, an herbicide that in effect caused plants to grow themselves to death. In post-war America, the fight against foreign enemies quickly became syntactically fused to the struggle against insects and weeds.9

DDT became available to the general public on August 1, 1945, and, although the research was far from conclusive, in October the USDA informed farmers that it presented no danger to humans. At about the same time, 2,4-D came on the market, another supposedly benign chemical.10

The application of 2,4-D ended the need for workers to chop weeds with a hoe. When the Reverend John Harris reflected on herbicides in 1988 as he stood beside a Louisiana cane field, he associated herbicides with field workers leaving the area. He pointed to the field. "You don't see no grass in that cane. See how clean it is. Ain't no grass gonna grow there." LSU promoted 2,4-D, he continued. "That's how they got rid of all the hoes. You don't see a hoe now unless you see it around somebody's house. They don't hoe no more."11

With little thought about health effects on wildlife or farmers, Department of Agriculture scientists championed synthetic pesticides as their superweapons, and their bureaucratic domain expanded to accommodate ambitious spray campaigns. In their eagerness to legitimate synthetic chemicals, USDA bureaucrats embraced ill-considered eradication projects, such as the fire ant fiasco, and also concealed studies of excessive chemical residues in milk and meat. Single minded, ambitious, and eager to curry favor with anyone higher in the USDA organizational chart, in Congress, or among chemical company executives, ARS leadership shamelessly and sometimes unethically promoted pesticides. Earlier scientific research on biological control fell away. With the fervor of the newly converted, ARS scientists worshiped pesticides as a plague-ending god.

The ideology within the USDA, and especially the ARS, embodied faith that chemicals were the only approach to controlling insects and weeds. In the heated scientific climate after World War II, Nature was not good enough. The ARS's W. L. Popham explained in 1960: "Pesticides are as vital to the efficient production of crops and livestock as aircraft or telephones are for modern transportation and communications." Without chemicals, he predicted, production would fall and crops "would be of low quality and unwholesome because of worms and rot." To scientists such as Popham, it was as if pre-synthetic agricultural practices had never existed. By the end of the 1960s, government bureaucrats continued to paint a bleak picture of a world without pesticides. "Soon," a USDA official complained in 1969 as environmentalists grew in importance, "we may be without food if the nitrate and phosphate opponents have their way."12

When crises challenged ARS claims that chemicals were benign, it solicited support from sister government agencies. A Sarasota, Florida, newspaper reported in October 1956 that malathion sprayed to combat a fruit fly infestation affected people with asthma and caused skin rashes. The ARS immediately requested "a reassuring statement from the U.S. Public Health Service." A Business Week columnist reported in September 1957 that sixty persons near Glen Allan, a small Mississippi community near Greenville, were ill with a fevers of 105 degrees and suffered from "asthmatic breathing, various flu-like symptoms, and some pneumonia." Dr. Mary Hogan, who treated the victims, announced that "spraying cotton fields with an insecticidal mixture" caused the outbreak. With indecent haste, a Mississippi extension entomologist and a representative of the Public Health Service that same day "concluded that the condition was in no way related to the use of insecticides." The ARS promptly notified the Business Week correspondent of the investigation and referred him to Dr. Wayland J. Hayes Jr., a U.S. Public Health Service toxicologist and dedicated chemical supporter. Officially the outbreak was attributed to Asian flu.13 The Glen Allan episode, however, did not fade away.

The infrastructure that supported agribusiness stretched from county USDA offices to state agriculture departments, from chemical companies to the Agricultural Research Service, from federal experiment stations to land grant universities, and from implement and chemical companies to such lobbying powers as the Delta Council and the Farm Bureau Federation. These components possessed enormous financial and political power. An incident in 1956 mobilized the Mississippi Farm Bureau, the Delta Council, the ARS, and perhaps some chemical companies and suggested the power, ideology, and ruthlessness that drove agribusiness. The case also opened a window on the culture of pesticides, how they were used by farmers, handled by aerial applicators, treated by doctors, and defended by experts.

The case began at the Marie Gin near Indianola, Mississippi. On August 16, 1956, a pilot spraying a mixture of malathion, endrin, and zylene flew over a cotton gin where Charles E. Lawler knelt welding steel beams on a platform at the edge of a cotton field. The plane appeared suddenly from behind the gin, and before Lawler could move he was enveloped in a pesticide mist. He gasped for breath, tearing at his welder's helmet, was immediately sick, and went home feeling nauseous. That night he ran a fever, was dizzy, threw up, and he went into a coma the next morning. The doctor immediately rushed him to the hospital. Charles Lawler never recovered his health.

In March 1960, nearly four years after the incident, the director of the ARS's Entomology Research Division pondered a telegram from B. F. Smith, head of the Delta Council. Charles E. Lawler had brought a $150,000 law suit against the landlord, tenant, and aerial applicator for damages suffered "as the result of the application of a malathion-endrin mixture for the control of cotton insects." Smith suggested that Dr. Marvin Merkel, an entomologist at the Delta Branch Experiment Station in Stoneville, as well as a Shell consultant, testify as an expert witness. Another ARS staff member, a memo stated, had "pointed out the importance of this suit and the effect it could have on cotton insect and other insect control programs if the claim for damage is sustained, even though there is every indication that the insecticide was not responsible for the plaintiff's illness."14

Smith's call for expert testimony from a government scientist (connected to Shell) and the ARS's solicitousness were emblematic of the ties between government scientists and the private sector. As Mississippi cotton production evolved from labor intensive plowing, chopping, and picking to capital intensive tractors, pesticides, and picking machines, those who stood to benefit from the emerging system allied to promote their interests.

Drew lawyer Pascol Townsend took Lawler's case and Elizabeth Hulen of Jackson joined him. Forrest Cooper from Indianola was the defense lawyer. With testimony from Lawler and a black worker who was near him at the time of the incident, Townsend and Hulen demonstrated the immediate and drastic results of the chemicals. Physicians who had treated Lawler took the stand. Townsend and Hulen also called Dr. Mary Hogan, who had diagnosed chemical poisoning in Glen Allan in 1957, but Forrest Cooper objected when her testimony would have drawn upon her experience in the 1957 case.

Cooper called the landlord (out of town, gas receipts showed), the tenant ( he had warned Lawler about spraying), the aerial application company owner (he changed a date on a receipt to show the spraying took place another day), the pilot (he did not recall seeing anyone on the gin platform), the county agent (people were exposed to chemicals all the time with no ill effects), the doctor who first treated Lawler (he did not realize that Lawler had been poisoned and had not prescribed atropine), expert witnesses (a malathion-endrin-zylene mixture could not have caused Lawler's illness), and local farmers (they knew of no one harmed by chemicals). It took the jury only a few minutes to find for the defense.15

Townsend and Hulen appealed the case to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which ruled that Dr. Hogan's testimony should have been allowed. It also pointed out that hospital records showed that the doctor who first treated Lawler had administered atropine, the antidote for organophophate poisoning. The Supreme Court overturned the jury verdict, except for ruling that the landlord's role was not relevant to the suit, and sent the case against the tenant and owner of the aerial applicator company back for retrial. When their efforts to sway the Supreme Court failed, the Farm Bureau and Delta Council suggested that the legislature re-write the pesticide liability laws in the next session.16

Although Dr. Mary Hogan did not complete her testimony at the trial, in an affidavit filed by Townsend and Hulen in 1957 she had summarized her experiences at Glen Allan. Born in Starkville and educated at the University of Mississippi and the University of Tennessee, she began practicing in Glen Allan in 1952. In the summer and fall of 1957, the year after the Lawler incident, she learned that aerial applicators were using parathion and malathion. While she might normally see twenty-five African American patients a day, when poisoning season began in 1957 a hundred and twenty-five arrived daily for treatment. They arrived coughing, spitting up blood, and running a high fever, and would lay out in the yard until she could see them. She diagnosed their malady as chemical pneumonia and advised her patients to stay away from the fields during spraying. Dr. Hogan reasoned that the poison blocked nerve impulses to the brain and interfered with breathing. She also reported that some people had died of respiratory failure. Dr. Hogan and her staff sometimes became ill when these organophosphates drifted from nearby cotton fields to her clinic. On October 5, 1957, she passed out. For a month she was a patient at University Hospital in Jackson, where she met another woman who was poisoned. Dr. Hogan then took up a psychiatric practice at Whitfield.17

Her experience raises the likelihood of a "hidden archive" of black workers poisoned by malathion and parathion. In the 1950s and 1960s, blacks were unlikely to complain about health problems. Not only were workers being replaced by machines and chemicals but also Citizens Councils were intimidating African Americans who advocated voting rights, school integration, or belonged to the NAACP. If black workers complained of poisoning, they might be categorized as troublemakers, which could cost their jobs.

In June 1962 the papers were filed in the Lawler settlement, and the tenant and the aerial applicator settled for $4,599.00.18 It was also in June 1962 that The New Yorker carried the first installment of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

In Indianola, as in other Delta towns, chemicals were linked to agricultural prosperity and thus to the community's welfare. While the health complaints of black workers could be ignored or contradicted, Charles Lawler's poisoning presented a more complex case. A skilled worker and family man, Lawler was part of the white community. Yet the community-and the jury-- rallied around the landlord, the tenant, and the aerial applicator. Pascol Townsend and Elizabeth Hulen could not overcome the ideology that justified chemicals and thus supported the farm economy. Yet Elizabeth Hulen, Dr. Rozella Hahn (a doctor who testified for the plaintiff), and Dr. Mary Hogan broke with Delta ideology that demanded total defense of planters' interests. These professional women thought outside the controlling ideology.

Before moving on to several other cases, I want to slightly expand the hidden archive. Attempting to learn more about Pascol Townsend, I interviewed two lawyers from his firm in Drew. Lawson Holladay recalled a summer job during his college days in the 1960s. The levee board hired him and a friend to spray herbicides along the Sunflower River to keep weeds down. When I asked Holladay what he was spraying, he replied, "2, 4-D, 2,4,5-T, diesel fuel and a soap surfactant to make it stick. I mean, that's Agent Orange."

John McWilliams, who grew up in Holly Ridge where his parents ran a store, recalled that in the 1960s Mission Brand Chemicals opened a factory nearby. The plant hired young men, many of them black high school dropouts. "And a lot of times," McWilliams recalled, "they would come to the Holly Ridge store for lunch and you couldn't tell that they were black. They would be covered with white. . . .They didn't have any kind of mask, rubber suits, anything." Sometimes," he added, "they were covered with yellow powder, depending on what they were making." He paused. "And they all are dead. . . .They died young."19

A few days later I was in Helena, Arkansas, for the opening of an exhibit on the 1927 Mississippi River flood and was chatting with one of the Delta Cultural Center volunteers, Juanita Russell. When I mentioned I was doing research on pesticides, she recalled the time when her house was treated for termites. The man who applied chlordane could not read. "So," she related, "he took a paint brush, took my wool rugs up. . . .Painted the floors. . . .The next day," she continued, "we were in intensive care in Memphis Tennessee Baptist Hospital." The landlord recommended changing the airconditioner filter. She moved. The house was uninhabitable and was destroyed. Mrs. Russell still has lung problems and suffers from emphysema and chronic bronchitis.20 After talking with Lawson Holladay, John McWilliams, and Juanita Russell, I wondered just how many people were either exposed to dangerous levels of pesticides or actually suffered from poisoning. Such incidents usually go unrecorded and uninvestigated.

A 1970 survey of Johnston County, North Carolina, gives a glimpse of chemical use and revealed how casually most farmers handled chemicals. Most stored chemicals in unlocked buildings near their houses. Nearly 70 percent had never worn safety equipment "such as gloves, respirator, or special clothing." Nearly 12 percent indicated that "they themselves or a member of their immediate family had been poisoned by pesticides during the past five years." Nearly 8 percent reported that they knew neighbors who had been poisoned. North Carolinians regularly died from organophosphate poisoning. In 1967 a man and a four year old girl died, a teenager died both in 1968 and 1969, and four fatalities occurred in 1971, all from parathion poisoning.21 Thus, eight years after Silent Spring, farmers and homeowners were still very casual about toxic chemicals.

The next cases focus on labeling and toxicity. Edward V. Griffin, a college graduate, managed Lake View Farm Supply in South Carolina. On May 18, 1964, the twenty-eight-year-old Griffin was taking inventory in the company's pesticide warehouse. Late in the afternoon a bag of 1 percent parathion dust burst, and, following directions on the label, Griffin washed himself with soap and water.

Griffin went home about 6:00 and watered the flowers. His wife, Anne, who was pregnant with their third child, called him to supper, and while sitting at the supper table he became ill. His wife called for an ambulance, and he was rushed to the hospital at Mullins, some twelve miles away. He arrived unconscious, and the doctor administered atropine. Griffin died about an hour later. The next morning workers entered the warehouse and found a burst bag of 1 percent parathion dust.

In 1969, Anne Griffin sued both for pain and suffering and for wrongful death, insisting that her husband had followed the instructions on the label and washed himself thoroughly. There was no skull and crossbones on the label, nor did it list an antidote. The judge declared the label "incomplete and inadequate." Anne Griffin won $107,220.00 in pecuniary loss, loss of companionship, and mental shock and suffering.22

In a similar case in the mid-1970s, a worker at an experimental farm in Georgia moved ten bags of 10 percent parathion. Later he lost consciousness and "was on the floor, shaking, glassy-eyed, and foaming at the mouth." He never recovered and died a short time later. Near the office there was an open bag of parathion. Buster Brown, who worked at the Mississippi Valley Aircraft Service, accidently splashed some malathion into his right eye on August 24, 1957. His eye became inflamed and his sight blurred. After visiting several doctors, his eye was removed.23

Of all the people around pesticides, those who applied the chemicals were most at risk. Whether working on a ground rig or applying chemicals from the air, there was the potential for dangerous exposure. Crop dusters, as many pilots insisted on being called, most resembled stock car drivers in their nerve and skills. Bill Robinet summed up some of the dangers to dusters in his autobiography, By the Skin of my Teeth. Pilots were always on the lookout for trees, electric lines, livestock, and equipment. "Cotton pickers or kids," he wrote, "would throw stones at the passing aircraft. Dove hunters and irate turkey farmers would shoot at pilots. . . . Your wheels might get caught in the cotton and drag you down or you might succumb to one or more of the organic phosphates you were applying." The engine could quit, "a bird might hit you in the face or the airplane just might catch on fire for no apparent reason." "Boredom," he insisted, "had no place in the routine.24

Aerial applicators were exposed to chemicals routinely, but in most cases they showed no adverse effects. Most knew exactly what they were doing and understood the potential effects of their cargo.

On August 29, 1961, Jose G. Gonzalez, a twenty-eight-year-old pre-medical student, Mexican citizen, and crop duster, made three flights near Bishopville, South Carolina, applying Folex, a plant defoliant. As he made his third run, Gonzalez circled the field to check for obstructions and then started his first "swath run" (the actual spraying). At that moment Gonzalez, according to court records, "became nauseated from the odor of the Folex, had trouble breathing, had severe pain in his stomach, black spots before his eyes and was sluggish." He attempted to pull out of the run but hit a wire and crashed. The plane flipped over causing the Folex to spill over him. When he arrived at the hospital, the doctor reported, "He was having trouble breathing, chills, pains in his stomach, blindness and was vomiting."25

Gonzalez was cut and bleeding, his left leg and ankle were broken, two teeth were broken, and he was covered with Folex dust. Doctors wanted to set his leg that afternoon, but Gonzalez's condition was deteriorating. After finding no antidote on the Folex label, the doctors called the Richmond headquarters that manufactured Folex but were offered no help. It took twelve hours to find a poison center that recommended atropine. Gonzalez remained critically ill for several days, and it was weeks before his condition stabilized enough for doctors to operate on his leg. Gonzalez stayed in the hospital almost three months.

He then returned home to Mexico before going back to medical school in California in the fall of 1962. Gonzalez sued. At the time of the trial in March 1965, Gonzalez's left leg was one and a half inches shorter than his right leg, his right hand was permanently injured, and he was weak and unable to stand for long periods of time.

The judge ruled that Gonzalez crashed because of a "typical case of cholinesterase inhibition," which he defined as "the slowing of nerve impulses and lack of muscular coordination." The Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company, he ruled, "was negligent in distributing a dangerous poison without adequate tests and without adequate warning of its toxic effects and in failing to publish and/or have available a protective antidote for the toxic substance, and such acts of negligence contributed as a proximate cause to plaintiff's injuries and damages." The judge allowed Gonzalez to collect $40,000 in damages.26

The Lawler, Griffin, and Gonzales cases provide examples of poisoning that went against the conventional wisdom regarding chemical safety in the 1950s and 1960s. Given the regularity of burst bags and carelessness in handling chemicals, one wonders how many other deaths were attributable to the same cause. These cases emerged because of lawsuits, but one wonders how many other "accidents" went unreported, how many pesticide-induced sicknesses were labeled "Asian flu," and how many duster crashes were due to being overcome with pesticides.

In the records of the USDA and of the ARS there are numerous reports of sickness and death, of children drinking chemicals, of animals eating pesticides, and of farmers being overcome. Officials often knew of dangers but did not act. When in 1967 Germany considered ruling that tobacco be labeled a food crop the ARS was concerned that no residue research had been done on tobacco. "Several years ago the Department cancelled the registration for endrin on tobacco," an ARS deputy explained. "This was done with the concurrence of Shell but I believe this was mainly an exercise as endrin is still used on tobacco."27 At about the same time, another ARS executive summarized research that showed feeding dogs even 0.1 ppm of endrin "produced slight kidney degeneration," and the effects were progressively worse when dosage was increased. "The Committee," the internal memorandum concluded, "recommended that a tolerance for endrin be denied because they could not find a clear demonstration of a no-effect level." A few months later the ARS admitted, "We have concern for the health of persons manufacturing the product and for those applying the pesticide chemical to tobacco plants, and to the person using the tobacco products."28 Their concern did not translate into action.

Endrin residues also presented problems with soybean and cottonseed oil, for the chemical ended up in the vegetable oil. The problem with residues in oil crops would continue, an ARS scientist predicted, until these particular pesticides were discontinued. "If the FDA were to enforce present regulations," he wrote, "there would be practically no Southern soybeans processed."29 Yet the vegetable oil reached the market with endrin residues.

Despite health problems connected to endrin and malathion, both remained on the market. In November 1963, for example, there was a massive fish kill, estimated at 5 million fish, along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. It took five months to find the source, which turned out to be endrin released from a Velsicol Corporation plant in Memphis. In 1967 a report listed ninety fish kills totaling 1.6 million fish due to agricultural operations and a total of 11.6 million killed by all kinds of pollution.30

Fish kills and research on animals were indisputable proof of toxicity, but long-term chemical effects were more subtle. Because DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons were stable chemicals, that is, they did not break down, their effectiveness continued for months, even years. Stability also allowed them to lodge in fat and concentrate as they moved up the food chain to predators that took in concentrated DDT from their prey. Ultimately scientists learned the effects of pesticides on the American bald eagle, peregrine falcons, and pelicans, birds at the top of the food chain. For roughly fifteen years after the war--until Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962--chemical companies, the USDA, and many farmers ignored warnings that these and other chemicals posed a danger to animals, much less to humans. When Rachel Carson warned of invisible dangers in the air--radioactivity and chemicals--atomic testing and widespread application of chemicals had long been accepted as benign.

Despite increasing knowledge about toxicity, chemical use expanded. In 1966, farmers used 72 million pounds of organochlorine insecticides on cotton, corn, peanuts, and tobacco, plus 26 million pounds of other synthetic pesticides on these crops. In 1969, as the movement to ban chlorinated hydrocarbons accelerated, an ARS executive warned of "increasing allegations of nerve and brain damage from chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides." He reported a speech by respected scientist Bruce Welch that "all of the hydrocarbon pesticides affect the cholinesterase system and that chronic effects may be severe."31

Silent Spring had an eerily similar effect on environmental questions as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision had on segregation. While both Silent Spring and the Brown decision were monumental and set in motion historical currents that endure, neither accomplished its ultimate goal. Due to Brown, the South, if not the nation, is today vastly different from the segregated and hateful place it was in the 1950s. By the same token, awareness of chemical dangers and laws to control chemical toxicity have curbed some of the most deadly pesticides. Yet the volume of chemicals used in the country today is far greater than when Silent Spring was published, and the residue of racism persists with the tenacity of DDT, especially in the USDA. The Delta Council and the Mississippi Farm Bureau saw in Rachel Carson's book a major threat to their livelihoods just as they saw in the Brown decision a challenge to their political, economic, and social domination. Both chemicals and segregation served the rural elite.

The legacy of the USDA is thus both agribusiness and the human and environmental cost to implement it. Still, it is likely that when the USDA's official history is written that it will favor more the heroic agribusiness scenario than one that questions the AAA, defends sharecroppers, criticizes pesticides, and analyzes USDA policy. It is more likely that the National Museum of American History will mount an exhibit that "tells the story of American agriculture" than one on the rural South from George Washington to Jimmy Carter. Both history and exhibits are too important now to be left to historians and curators, just as farming was too important to be left to farmers. The USDA from the New Deal to Silent Spring began reconfiguring the rural United States into a semblance of Iowa. The part of the country that least fit the Iowa blueprint was the South, and it paid the highest price in human terms. Telling "the story of American agriculture" should include both the history of the intended and the unintended consequences of USDA policy, the creation and the destruction.


1. Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 65-90; Daniel, "The Legal Basis of Agrarian Capitalism: The South since 1933," in Melvyn Stokes and Rick Halpern, eds., Race and Class in the America South Since 1890 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 79-110.

2. L. C. Salter to Ezra Taft Benson, November 2, 1953; Wilbert McReynolds to Ezra Taft Benson, January 26, 1953, farm program, Records of the Secretary of Agriculture, Record Group 16, National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter cited SOA, RG 16, NARA).

3. Edward L. Schapsmeier and Frederick H. Schapsmeier, "Eisenhower and Agricultural Reform: Ike's Farm Policy Legacy Appraised," The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 51 (April 1992), 147-59; Ezra Taft Benson, Cross Fire: The Eight Years with Eisenhower (Garden City: Doubleday, 1962).

4. Pete Daniel, Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 214-17; 246-48.

5. Harold G. Vanderlee to Lindley Beckworth, February 6, 1959, commodities 5, box 3278; Marvin L. McLain to John J. Sparkman, April 15, 1959, commodities 5-1, storage, box 3279, SOA, RG 16, NARA.

6. "Recipients of Storage Payments in Excess of $500,000 Made in the Calendar Years 1958 to Companies Operation Under Uniform Grain and Rice Storage Agreements," attached to Marvin L. McLain to John J. Williams, April 29, 1959, commodities 5-1, storage, box 3279, ibid.

7. William A. Anderson to True Morse, November 29, 1955, farming 2, family, ibid.

8. Marvin L. McLain to John J. Sparkman, April 15, 1959, commodities 5-1, storage, box 3279, SOA, RG 16, NARA; Carl Stanley to P. O. Davis, February 3, 1955, ACES Papers, box 71, Correspondence, 1954-55, Auburn University Archives.

9. See Edmund P. Russell III, "'Speaking of Annihilation': Mobilizing for War against Human and Insect Enemies, 1914-1945," Journal of American History 82 (March 1996), 1505-29. For a broad treatment of synthetic chemicals, see Russell, War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). See also, Thomas R. Dunlap, DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); Robert L. Rudd, Pesticides and the Living Landscape (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964); Frank Graham Jr., Since Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970).

10. Assistant USDA Secretary Charles F. Brannan claimed that "a great deal of experimental work has been done" with DDT and that "it is safe to recommend the use of certain types of DDT insecticides for the control of certain insect pests." See Charles F. Brannan to Edwin Arthur Hall, October 11, 1945, chemicals, SOA, RG 16, NARA. See also Science in Farming: The Yearbook of Agriculture, 1943-1947 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947) and Virginia Scott Jenkins, The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994).

11. Interview with Reverend John Harris, May 28, 1988, Franklin, Louisiana, by Lu Ann Jones, Oral History of Southern Agriculture, National Museum of American History.

12. W. L. Popham to B. T. Shaw, January 12, 1960, regulatory crops, no. 253, Records of the Agricultural Research Service, Record Group 310, National Archives and Records Administration (Hereafter cited ARS Records, RG 310, NARA). R. A. Moncrief to David R. Obey, October 30, 1969, pesticides, box 5081, SOA, RG 16, NARA. For an overview of the use of chemicals in the post-World War II South, see Pete Daniel, Lost Revolutions, 61-87.

13. M. R. Clarkson to E. D. Burgess, October 26, 1956, plant pest control division, no. 376; Clarkson, memorandum for the files, September 10, 1957, regulatory crops 1, no. 752, ARS, RG 310, NARA.

14. E. F. Knipling, office memorandum, March 11, 1960, Entomology Research Division, Director's Correspondence, 1959-65, Box 3, cotton insects research branch, ibid.

15. The testimony and relevant papers can be found at the Mississippi State Archives in Jackson in the trial transcript, Charles Lawler v. W. T. Skelton et al., (no. 7868), 241 Miss. 274.

16. Lawler v. Skelton, 130 So. 2d 569; B. F. Smith to Boswell Stevens, July 17, 1961, Boswell Stevens Papers, subject files, 1959-73, Boswell Stevens Papers, Special Collections Department, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi Sate University, Mississippi State, Mississippi.

17. Lawler v. Skelton, 130 So. 2d 569; "Memorandum of Conference with Dr. Hogan," n.d. (ca. August 15, 1958); Elizabeth Hulen to Pascol Townsend, August 15, 1958, in Townsend/Hulen files, Lawler v. Skelton, Townsend, McWilliams, and Holladay Office, Drew, Mississippi.

18. Petition for Approval of Settlement, Lawler v. Skelton, et al., Circuit Court of Jefferson Davis County; Hulen to Townsend, May 9, 1962; Townsend to Hulen, May 16, 1962, in Townsend/Hulen files, Lawler v. Skelton, Townsend, McWilliams, and Holladay Office, Drew, Mississippi.

19 Interview with John McWilliams and Lawson Holladay, June 27, 2002, Drew, Mississippi, by Pete Daniel.

20. Interview with Juanita Russell, June 30, 2002, Helena, Arkansas, by Pete Daniel.

21. W. A. Williams, "The North Carolina State Board of Health Pesticides Project," July 31, 1970, attached to Anne R. Yobs to T. C. Byerly, October 12, 1970, box 5268, pesticides; Herbert S. Harrison to G. G. Rohwer, August 25, 1970, box 5269, pesticides, SOA, RG 16, NARA.

22. Griffin v. Planters Chemical Corporation, 302 F. Supp. 937; Griffin v. Planters Chemical Company, plaintiff's trial brief, civil actions no. 68-170, 68-171, Federal Records Center, East Point, Georgia.

23. International Paper Company v. Gilbourn, 240 S.E.2d 722 (1977); Mississippi Valley Aircraft Service v. Brown, 111 So.2d 28 (1959).

24. Bill Robinet, By the Skin of my Teeth: A Cropduster's Story (Veneta, Oregon, 1997), 41

25. Jose G. Gonzalez v. Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company, 239 F. Supp. 567. Jose G. Gonzalez v. Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company, container 169, AC 874, Federal Records Center, East Point, Georgia.

26. Ibid.

27. Kenneth C. Walker to H. A. Rodenhiser, April-May 1967 folder, office of the administrator, central correspondence file, 1967-73, Box 2, chemicals 1 folder, ARS, RG 310, NARA.

28. Harry W. Hays to R. G. Anderson, April 11, 1967, box 2; Hays to Hiram Fong, November 21, 1967, box 16, ibid.

29. Kenneth C. Walker to Frank McLaughlin, April 6, 1967, box 2; Walker to R. G. Anderson, May 3, 1967, Box 10, office of the administrator, central correspondence file, ibid.

30. Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (New York: Henry Holt, 1997), 470; Ned Bayley to John W. Byrnes, July 29, 1968, box 4851, pesticides, SOA, RG 16, NA.

31. Ned D. Bayley to Jamie L. Whitten, October 17, 1969; T. C. Byerly to N. D. Bayley, September 2, 1969, Box 5081, Pesticides, SOA, RG 16, NARA.