Remembering Dwight Harris

Buckeye Farm Beat

Ohio farm leader and award-winning conservationist Dwight R. Harris, former executive director of the Ohio Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation

Published on: September 1, 2010

I remember Dwight Harris was a soft spoken man who knew his stuff. When he was head of the ASCS in the late 1980s, he would seek me out after press conferences and meetings to make sure I understood the intricacies of new farm programs. It was his job to administer new programs like payment-in-kind and marketing loans. These products were crucial to the farmers who had survived the credit crunch of the early 1980s. Harris took the job of explaining them seriously – making sure a farm-beat reporter like myself, understood all the details.

In the course of getting to know him we exchanged family stories and he introduced me to his son James Harris. I wrote an article about James’ doctorate work in forestry. I appreciate James sending the obituary for his dad. Reading it I realize that Dwight’s quietly thorough knowledge of agriculture was just part of his worldliness.

Dwight was born Aug. 10, 1918 to James and Nelle Harris on Sunnyside Farm in Milford Twp, and Dwight farmed his entire life this Ohio Century Farm. His wife Jean predeceased him, as did his parents and close-knit siblings and their spouses. He was valedictorian of and graduated early from Milford Twp high school, and then in 1939 from Miami University. Following graduation, he taught conservation and history at McGuffey, Poasttown and Ross High School.

FARMERS FRIEND: Dwight R. Harris, Aug. 10, 1918 - Aug. 26, 2010, brought a farmers' point of view to administering the complex programs of USDA.

With the onset of World War II, Dwight joined the Army Air Corps to select and train airmen as part of Psychological Research Unit #1 and Unit #6 at Maxwell and Keesler Fields. He volunteered on detached service to select and train the Tuskegee Airmen, before being discharged to take care of his ailing parents and farm.

Back in Ohio, Dwight was elected Supervisor of the Soil and Water Conservation District, President of the Butler County Farm Bureau, chair of the county’s Agriculture Council and Rural Long Range Planning Committee, and he became a well known agriculture instructor for veterans under the GI bill. Dwight spent half his life in Milford Twp, and played an active role in the county, Lutheran church, and YMCA, representing the region and then the United States on the World’s Committee of the World’s Alliance of YMCAs and serving on the National Young Adult Council. Dwight was elected as a delegate to the first World Council of Churches assembly in Amsterdam, the second World Conference of Christian Youth in Oslo, and eight world YMCA and youth assemblies.

In 1957, the USDA hired Dwight to specialize in farm and conservation programs. He moved to Columbus and met his wife, marrying in 1959. In 1969, Secretary of Agriculture Hardin appointed Dwight as Ohio’s executive director of the federal Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS, now the Farm Service Agency), and Dwight served as acting Director during part of the Reagan administration and in 1994 and as USDA State Emergency Board chairman. In 1991, Dwight shared the ASCS’s highest award, the Administrator Award, for knowledge of and service to agriculture, and was President of Ohio’s ASCS retirees for many years. In 1956, Congressman Schenk praised Dwight in the Congressional Record for his early advocacy of conservation reserves and soil banks. By 1973, Dwight had proposed merging USDA offices into “one stop service centers”, and in 1976 he authored a management study on the topic, and was pleased to see the FSA’s reinvention by the time he retired in 1994.

Dwight was named the 2007 Outstanding Cooperator by the Butler Soil and Water Conservation District for “outstanding long term accomplishment in the conservation of soil, water and related resources.” His personal contributions to conservation started in the thirties with his first SCS cooperative agreements, and led to a 1950’s Pioneer Conservation award, and recognition in 1966 for his early adoption of conservation tillage. He was an officer for the Soil Conservation Society of America and the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation society. Dwight was a 7th generation Miami Valley farmer with a handful of pioneer ancestors who served in the Revolution, including Judge Robert Lytle who named Milford Twp and John McCain who farmed at Ft. Washington on land which became downtown Cincinnati. Dwight and Jean also purchased an adjoining farm, Tallawanda View, and renovated a one room schoolhouse, farmhouses, and pioneer barns on the property. Dwight personally built several barns from hand hewn lumber.

Dwight loved “tickling the ivories”, winning awards playing the piano as a boy in Cincinnati recitals and more recently at a concert at the Capitol Theater, playing his favorite by Liszt, Liebestraum. Dwight composed two songs himself that he played daily. He was a 75-year Grange member, a lifelong 4-H member and leader, honored with a State FFA Degree, and was a member of Oxford Farmer’s Club, Ohio Ag Council, Farmer’s Union, several farm co-ops, and was a speaker on agriculture or history at clubs, on the radio and TV.

Thank you Dwight for all your counseling and for all you gave to your state. May we learn from your example.