When people in and out of government evaluate Bob Bergland, one point of agreement emerges strongly. They like him.
Bob Bergland: honest Minnesota wheat farmer, hard-working, unpretentious, loyal to the President, straight, tough in defense of his fundamental convictions. Those are the descriptions one hears.
For instance. Earl Butz likes him.
When Butz was doing Bergland's job as Secretary of Agriculture for Presidents Ford and Nixon, he withered many an enemy Democrat with his partisan criticism. But his Democratic successor, he says mildly. "He's a very nice chap."
At the White House, a senior presidential adviser spent 10 minutes praising Bargland's work before concluding: You can see that I like the guy."
For all those character references, though, opinion about the new secretarys effectiveness is still mixed Bergland has assembled around him one of the most talented and imaginative sub-cabinets in Washington.
He has opened up the agency to new ideas on nutrition, world hunger and consumer affairs. And he has projected his desire to expand the agency's constituency beyond commercial farmers and agribusinesses, to reach out to millions of poor in the nation's rural areas as well as to Americans in cities.
Bergland says he is "changing the department in many ways." And if that means espousing a mildly Maoist notion along the way, that seems to be within Bergland's boundaries of acceptibility.
The secretary surprised some businessmen at a recent meeting on the farm chemicals industry when he suggested unemployed people, instead of chemical pesticides, to fight insects and bugs. He did not explain further.
But some of his admirers are still withholding judgement on whether he has either the political skills or original ideas to carry out sweeping changes in a department that has been called "the last unexplored territory in America."
The Department of Agriculture, as it now exist, was proved unmanageable, or nearly so, to more forceful men than Bergland. It is, like the corn of the Midwest, a hybrid.
It administers food programs at home and abroad, finances scientific research, signals the nation's farmers how much to plant, and operates a far-flung police and regulatory force that supervises the inspection of grain destined for far-off places, meat, eggs, cattle and other commodities.
The department was founded by President Lincoln in 1862 to make good on a Republican party campaign promise to help farwers. Since then, it has evolved into, among other things, a vast national planning agency set in a capital that considers itself the world headquarters of the free market and free enterprise systems.
The agency's reach extends into almost even country in the nation, through the network of federal agricultural agents and farmer committees which carry out federal farm programs at the grass roots. And the department has considerable authority to control what farmers grow, and how much they grow, on their own property.
Bergland's ability to master and lead this vast agency is still be tested.
"He's still a classic Democrat so far," an admirer said. "He's still a secretary in the mold of the 1950s and 1960s. He wants higher price supports and good farm income. He means well and responds well. But it remains to be seen if he has a bigger picture of agriculture and its role in our society."
In a sense, President Carter's signing of a new four-year farm bill this week underscores that ambiguous record.
The bill contains higher grain price supports and substantial increases in income subsidies for farmers - provisions Bergland wanted from the start of the debate on the measure.
Oddly, through, Bergland has not harvested much of the credit. He has come under fire from farmers for not giving them enough, at the same time that some of the President's fiscal watchdogs feel that Bergland undermined Carter's objective of restraint in a agricultural spending.
Bergland and his aides advocated higher price supports and government payments for farmers in early Cabinet discussions. The wispy-haired wheat farmer from near the Canadian border was especially concerned that wheat growers were being pinched by high operating costs and falling grain prices.
But his proposals were blocked by Chairman Charles L. Schultze of the Council of Economic Advisers. Bergland then dutifully testified in Congress against increases, which annoyed farmers, but said publicly the administration was not his own, which irritated federal budget planners.
Later when the powerful farm bloc in Congress united behind subsidies that exceeded even what Bergland had originally proposed to the Cabinet. Bergland went along.
The final cost of the farm bill to the Carter administration may be high. Last week Colorado wheat farmers who met with Bergland bitterly attacked the farm subsidies contained in the measure at inadequate.
But in a letter to Carter this week. Chairman Edmund S. MUskie (D-Maine) of the Senate Budget Committee took the opposite tack. He warned that agricultural spending a riscal 1978 could exceed early administration estimate by 1.3 billion to $2.3 billion.
Also some economists wonder whether the 1978 wheat support price of $2.25 a bushel, a 10-cent increase, will price U.S grain out of world market.
In defense of Bergland's record to date, his supporters point out that he faced problems in his first few months in office that were almost unique to new secretaries.
The Carter administration inherited a rapidly changing farm situaion that called for immediate rescue operations.
The period of high grain prices and unprecedented prosperity, which extended for immediate rescue operations.
The period and which extended from 1972 to 1975, was giving way go falling prices, unrest on farms in the nation's plains and praires and the reappearance of a large of a large surplus of unsold grain.
Under the Republicans grain prices were at record levels demand for American corn, wheat and soybeans was storng, and the buying by Soviets and others emptied government storage bins.
Those conditions made it possible for the Nixon and Ford administration to reduce their tinkering with the agricultural economy and put their gree marked doctries into practrice.
But grain prices started to decline even more Ford, took over, the pressures on Washington to resume doing what it had done for most of the last 40 years - supporting for farm prices and planning the size of corps - were increasing.
The situation cast Bergland or moral his staff.
The farm bill envisions an enlarged government tole in agriculture i the next four long-range polices or mold his staff.
The farm bill envisions an enlarged government role bill envisions enlarged government role in agriculture in the next four years, but one required a lighter hadn than in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, Washington controlled the Country's farm encourage down to the county level.
Some of the old bureaucratic machinery will now have to be oiled up and put to use again, as the surpluses continue to accumulate.
But Bergland takes credit, in part, for a farmers program that leaves farmers with broader options on what and how much to plant. The measure also give them wider leeway to decide when to turn over their unsold crops to the government.
Bergland's predecessor, Butz, now back at Purdue University, in Lafayette Ind., claims that only agencies of these new partme politices.
In August, Bergland Secretary will.grouMichael Blumental and others in the Cabinet on how much productive wheat-gowing land to idle next year.
Bergland had wanted a cutback of as much as 30 per cent to reduce the size of the 1978 crop, but others argued for less because of the uncertainties of the world food supply and the possibility that too big a reduction could result in food price inflation if crops failed next year.
But Bergland aides say their boss still has more influence with the White House than Butz had. Butz, they note, was often ignored, such as in the 1974 decision to suspect grain sales to the soviet Union.
Senior White House officials say that Bergland is respected by fellow farmer Carter.
"The President trusts Bergland's judgement," said one of them. "He's not captured by advocate groups. There's a sense of him as strong. Bob doesn't run over people, but he won't be run over, either. He can get along with people even when he's telling them what they don't want to hear."
Bergland supporters say it is inevitable that other parts of the government have a voice in agricultural policy now aday. In previous decades, farm policy was made a t a lower level, by the Department of Agricultural and the cotton and wheat blocs in Congress. Today, a farm bill can be affect food prices, trade, hungry people abroad, the U.S. economy and international relations.
As the administration found out this spring during debate over a program to aid sugar beet and sugar cnae growers, this country's sugar policy affects dozens of sugar-producing countries abroad, the livelihoods of farmers at home and the jobs of workers in sugar refineries all over the United States.
Bergland's supporters don't claim any great truimphs, but they insist that the stage has been set for a promising future. Bergland has some of the most interesting sub-cabinets in Washington.