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One of a Kind: J. Carroll Bottum

I have enjoyed writing recently about four retired professors who had a major influence on me both professionally and personally when I was a graduate student at Purdue. Next up is J. Carroll Bottum, known just as “Carroll.” He first joined the Purdue Ag Econ Department in 1928, so he had been there over 50 years when I first met him! He was literally a legend in Extension at Purdue and a very well-known ag policy expert. If memory serves, he was either the originator of the idea for the “Soil Bank” or very influential in its creation during the 1950s. Today, the Soil Bank lives on as the Conservation Reserve Program.

Carroll and I seemed to hit it off almost from day one. Maybe because he was a South Dakota farm kid at heart, as I was one from Iowa. He actually served as a member of my MS thesis committee and was very helpful in the process. This was when he was in his early 80s.  We seemed to talk about everything agricultural economics and life. He was just so easy to talk to. And he had an office on the 6th floor of the Krannert Building, where he could be found every day. My understanding is that he went to that office nearly every day until he went blind at 92. I know not everyone wants a retirement like that, but I still find it inspiring.

Several things Carroll told me have stuck with me all these years. Even before the efficient markets revolution had really taken root, there were questions about the value of agricultural outlook programs. It was no secret that the forecasts of outlook specialists were not all that great. This turned out to be a question that consumed much of my own academic career.  Reflecting his keen insights, Carroll told me one day why he thought agricultural outlook programs were so important.  He said that outlook was how you got farmers in the door so you could teach them economics.  All these years later, I have not found a better justification for supporting ag outlook positions. Simple test. Try putting together extension meetings for farmers with and without an outlook component and see which one is better attended. You will find Carroll was right.

Carroll also was full of life wisdom. When I was starting the job search at the end of my grad student days, Carroll pulled me aside and told me how to judge a good job. He said that if you could find a job where you look forward to going to work 3 out of 5 days and could not give a !@#$ on the other two, well, that was as good as you could expect. I don’t know how many times I have repeated that story to students.

Last but not least he had a wonderful sense of humor.  One day Carroll showed me a copy of John Kenneth Galbraith’s autobiography. Somewhere in it, Galbraith called Carroll a “retarded” economist (really) for his free-market views. Carroll thought that was just hilarious and a badge of honor. Like I said, one of a kind.  

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