Citizen Batt, An interview with the former Governor and Idaho’s most famous Onion farmer
Interview and photo by Jake Putnam
What’s your earliest memory of farming?
Well my Dad, we had four siblings, two sisters, two brothers and he had us doing farm chores as soon as we could walk. I remember at six years old I was digging up wire work out of lettuce. We were always doing something out on the farm.
What brought you into politics?
I was involved in farm organizations that proved to me that you could get things done collectively. I had no political aspiration. My brother was in the legislature for a term but didn’t like it and quit. I got into it but never ran more than six years; I had my own term limitations. I just think it’s a good system if you don’t make it too political. I think people tend to lose their objectivity particularly if they are in too long. I was an advocate of term limits, but I can see why they’re probably unconstitutional.
Are we losing touch with where our food is coming from?
It’s really too bad, everyone should have the experience of growing their own food; it’s one of the finest you can have. That said, agriculture has become so efficient that we’re depending on fewer true famers all the time. They’re being replaced by a lot of big operations, so it’s very difficult to get the same experience. I think it’s one reason that gardening is becoming so popular; but it’s a good substitute.
You were one of the Founding fathers of the Food Producers of Idaho, how did that happen?
It came to be because we were having difficulties with farm labor organizations. We were being accused of some very bad practices which we were not guilty of and I think Doyle Symms and a few others thought we needed to get organized and present the true side of farming and its relationship with labor.
Your legacy as governor and lawmaker will forever be tied to epic water battles, is water still the activist lynch pin it’s been in the past?
It was and is the life’s blood of Idaho agriculture. All the other facets of Idaho life would drastically change a limited water supply and we wouldn’t amount to much economically.
How did you balance the Endangered Species Act with Idaho water demands during your administration?
We had to make sure there were scientific basis for all uses of water, I don’t think it’s ever been demonstrated that if they took all of Idaho’s water that it would do much for the species so, we argued on that basis. We did agree to divert a certain number of cubic feet down the river each year which we thought was adequate, which we could afford at the time.
What attracted you to hops, it can be a very difficult crop to grow, yet your operation thrived?
My family, my cousins and uncle were into Hops before I was. They made some good money at it, so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s a very interesting crop and as you know, labor intensive. Other than that it’s just a beautiful, fine crop to raise. I still dream about it now.
In the farm world you are best known for onions, tell us about your operation and how the operation grew through the years?
I always raised a few onions but thought the packers made too much money, so I partnered up and opened my own shed. I wanted to try and cut out the middleman. It grew into a fair sized operation through the years. It was very interesting and I made a little money on it.
As mentioned before, Food Producers of Idaho was born out of Caesar Chavez movement, and yet you were one of the first farmers to take a stand on civil rights in Idaho; Your thoughts on farm labor?
I worked with my laborers and hired hands all my life and learned to admire them all. The people I used to work with, the first gang from the dust bowl days blew in from the Midwest to out here. They were very industrious people and then we started importing braceros from Mexico, we even had prisoners of war and I had a great deal of empathy for all of the workers. I worked with them side by side. I became aware of one thing: A person is a person and should not be looked down upon for being farm labor or any other occupation. But there was a great deal of discrimination practiced particularly against Mexican workers. I didn’t like that and made sure that all were treated on an equal basis as we could. I tried to keep from hiring illegals. Our hired hands have been most helpful, I couldn’t have done it without them, and worked to give them as many rights as we could give them.
You were instrumental in building the Wilder labor camp?
Yes we put in a housing project, my cousin Wendell was a big gun in it and it was a model in all labor camps at that time. We had some real bad ones before then. It was obvious that we needed new ones and I worked hard on field facilities. We didn’t have any toilets in the field. The disgrace! To make people go a quarter mile away to a ditch? We took care of that more or less. Of course I formed the first Human Rights Commission in Idaho, not only for that group but others who felt discrimination in Idaho and there was plenty at the time. I’m proud of Idaho for doing it; in a way I think we are one of the most tolerant of all states now. It’s a balancing act to look out after all of those rights without intruding unnecessarily on other people’s lives with too much government, I think we have a good set up here.
You served during a time when there was a sense of civility in government; you had respect for those across the aisle. Have we lost that can do attitude?
It’s a shame. I’ve been digging through some of my old clippings. There was an amazing difference in the way we treated each other not only in the legislature but everywhere. Most striking was in the legislature where people really had respect for each other and argued things on a reasonable basis and came to the proper conclusions. I think we did a really good job. The press was much more objective back in those days. They gave us credit for good things as well as bad, and gave us the benefit of the doubt whenever they could. It was just a far better procedure than it is now.
You were friends and worked closely with Cecil Andrus in the legislature:
That’s a very good friendship in which I’m very proud. We were not the only ones to develop teamwork and friendship across the aisle; it was very common in those days. We’d argue like heck in the daytime and then have a cool one in the evening and talk things over. Sure, we were proud of our parties, we didn’t make them the dominant part of it; it was all about Idaho.
Probably something many don’t know about you, you’re a writer, a poet, a jazz musician and composer, anything new in the works?
I wonder why I quit. I’m 83 will be 84 next month, it’s hard to concentrate on things like that.
And your music?
I still play a little music; whenever I can, I love it.