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Neil Harl: a brilliant mind dedicated to serving agriculture

Neil Harl was a force of intellect — and courage. The Iowa State University agricultural law and economics professor died in Ames, Iowa, on November 4 at age 88, after a career that left a big mark on farming.

Harl was best known for his outsized role in seeking a federal rescue of the Farm Credit System during the debt crisis of the 1980s. Some of his ideas made it into a $4 billion bailout signed into law by President Ronald Reagan early in 1988. Not all of that financial support was used and Farm Credit lenders have long since repaid their obligations. Harl also helped draft a farm debt moratorium law in Iowa.

Harl wrote about his efforts in his book, The Farm Debt Crisis of the 1980s, which was reviewed by historian Gilbert C. Fite in 1992.

“By early 1984 Harl had concluded that the farm debt problem was so serious that some remedial action should be taken before the crisis became even worse,” Fite wrote. “He discussed the matter in academic seminars, talked to the press, visited with bankers, and appeared before congressional committees. He argued that farm debt would have to be restructured, and proposed writing down some of the principal, extending the time for payment, and having the federal government guarantee part of the loan.”

Fite added, “The book is rather hard reading. It contains many long quotations, has some duplication, and would be improved with some reorganization. Yet it is basic to understanding the farm crisis.”

Some of Harl’s writing could indeed be appreciated at times only by attorneys and accountants. His book, Farm Estate and Business Planning, was a bible for professional planners and advisers through its 19 editions. So was his Farm Income Tax Manual, updated twice annually.

But Harl was widely quoted in the popular media, too. He was accessible to reporters and helpful to me when I worked at The Des Moines Register and when I was business editor for Successful Farming magazine. 

Sometimes his views ran against popular perceptions. Harl was an outspoken critic of efforts by many farm groups to repeal the federal estate tax.

In 2001 Harl was quoted in The New York Times saying that he had never seen a farm that had to be sold to pay estate taxes. Harl characterized estate tax repeal as mainly an effort by billionaires with little connection to agriculture.

Harl wasn’t afraid to sue his own employer, either. In 1992, when the Iowa Board of Regents voted to sell Iowa State University’s television station, Harl helped form “Iowans for WOI-TV,” which tried unsuccessfully to block the sale in court.

Harl was a prolific writer and leader in his profession.

As an ISU faculty member, he published 29 books, gave more than 3,400 presentations across 43 states and 17 foreign countries, and served as founding president of the American Agricultural Law Association and president of the American Agricultural Economics Association.

Harl rose a long way from his humble childhood on a southern Iowa farm near the Mormon Trail. He attended a one-room country school through eighth grade and graduated valedictorian of his high school class of 1945 in Seymour, Iowa. He served in the U.S. Army from 1955-1957.

Years later, he and his wife, Darlene, were able to acquire the Harl family land purchased in 1863 that was Harl’s birthplace. And they bought additional land his family had farmed as share-croppers.

Harl retired from Iowa State University in 2005 but continued publishing, consulting, and holding seminars until 2016.

Harl’s work was being recognized almost until the end of his life. In 2020, the National Farmers Union gave Harl its highest honor, the Meritorious Service Award.

After his death, one of Harl’s farm crisis contemporaries, ISU sociology professor Paul Lasley, told The Des Moines Register, “He was truly remarkable, and Iowa and the nation are better off because of Neil.”

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