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The Elbert Files: Neil Harl, 1933-2021


Neil Harl, who died Nov. 4 at age 88, was quite possibly the smartest person I ever interviewed and definitely the fastest talker.

Harl knew all there was to know about agriculture and finance. 

He was a modern-day Alexander Hamilton, an economist and lawyer, obsessed with making capitalism work. He wrote, lectured and testified in Congress and around the world, authoring 29 books, including 15 volumes (10,000 pages) about agricultural law.  

During the 1990s, Harl traveled extensively in the former Soviet Union in a quest to help establish stable economies in newly emerged nations that had lost any sense of private property and market fairness under decades of communist rule. 

I remember Harl explaining that before modern banking and finance could take hold, the former Soviet citizens needed to create and accept systems for establishing ownership and recording deeds, not to mention courts that they trusted.

It would take, he said, at least a generation for the changes to take hold. Unfortunately, the process was cut short by political upheavals.   

Harl was a much-valued news source, a man of vast knowledge with many anecdotes. Better yet, he was always available any hour, day or night, by telephone. 

I almost always used a tape recorder when I interviewed the man who was Iowa State University’s Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Agriculture and Economics.

It took an hour or more to transcribe a 10-minute chat with Harl. But I almost always did because I knew that when I unwound our conversations, compound-sentence-by-compound-sentence, I would find hidden gems that had flown completely over my head during our talk. 

I wasn’t alone.

Daniel Zaffarano, dean of Iowa State University’s Graduate College, once said of Harl: “He’s been told he talks too rapidly for people to think.” 

The simple fact was that no one knew as much about agriculture and finance as the square-faced Harl, who had grown up the son of a tenant farmer in southern Iowa.

Nor are there many people with total-recall memories, like Harl had for most of his life. He was one of those extremely rare people who could effortlessly wind back his memory circuits and recall exactly where he was and what he was doing on any given day.

His memory was especially valuable to my Des Moines Register colleague Dan Piller when Piller wrote a retrospective in 2010 about the Great Depression. 

Harl was a child during the Depression, having been born in 1933. His crystal-clear memories of what happened in his family’s home beginning in 1936, as well as his years of studying the period, added dimension and heft to Piller’s 1930’s nostalgia stories.

The decade was “the worst period of civil disorder in the state’s history, even more pronounced than in the 1960s,” Harl told Piller, who like me came of age during the turbulent ’60s.

Nor was the Great Depression comparable to the 1980s farm crisis, although for a time Harl and others worried that things were headed in that direction. 

During the 1930s, Harl explained, armed farmers resisted foreclosure sales, eventually prompting the Legislature to pass a moratorium on forced farm sales. 

Fifty years later, Harl led the fight for a similar ban and to reform bankruptcy laws. He was largely successful, at least to the point that violence was avoided. 

Long after the farm crisis, Harl continued to advocate for fairness in bankruptcy laws, arguing on behalf of homeowners during the nationwide mortgage crisis that surfaced in 2007.

One of my favorite Harl stories, first told by the New York Times years ago, has been updated and repeated often. It involved farmers’ opposition to inheritance taxes, which the Farm Bureau, among others, describes as a “death tax” that forces families to sell farms.

“It’s a myth,” Harl told the Times, adding that he had “searched far and wide but never found a case in which a farm was lost because of the estate tax.”

That was vintage Harl: a man who told the truth, even when it was uncomfortable for many. 

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