Thirty-five years ago, around Thanksgiving, Clayton Yeutter was focused on using American trade laws to negotiate on behalf of the United States for the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. As the U.S. Trade Representative in the Reagan administration, one of his main goals was to make it easier for farmers to buy and sell their products across borders.
He had asked his advisors to draw up a plan for countries to cut their subsidies, tariffs, and market-access barriers. They came back with a proposal to reduce these by 50 percent over ten years. When they presented their draft, Yeutter looked at it and scratched out the 50 and replaced it with 100 percent. As a skilled negotiator, he realized that if you want to get to fifty, you need to start at one hundred.
Clayton got buy-in from the Secretary of Agriculture, his fellow cabinet officer, and the United States set the table for what became one of the most important trade pacts ever negotiated in human history.
This story and many others are included in a new biography that talks about his role in global trade at this point in America’s history. The title, “Rhymes with Fighter: Clayton Yeutter American Statesman,” is a reference to what Yeutter would say when a person asked the pronunciation of his last name. He was an extraordinary public servant and statesman whose efforts in support of cross-border business and free trade are still having a positive impact on agriculture and farmers.
I got to know Clayton in the final years of his life. We connected on a basic level: He was a farm boy from Nebraska and I was a farm girl from Iowa. We were both interested in public policy, especially with respect to agriculture. He had worked for four presidents, and I had worked for a governor.
His career was prestigious—after serving as U.S. Trade Representative under President Reagan, he was Secretary of Agriculture under President George H.W. Bush—he was a busy man whose advise was sought out by many, but he never saw himself as too important or busy for me. I enjoyed an open invitation to see him on visits to Washington, D.C., and he took an active interest in the Global Farmer Network because he believed in the mission of our farmer-led and voiced organization that advocates for better trade policies and access to science-based technology in agriculture.
Across a number of years and breakfast meetings, he became a model mentor: a person who shared his experience and advice and expected nothing in return. While his expertise and perspective were sought out, it was also many unsolicited notes and emails of encouragement from him that provided subtle and important affirmation of the work and messaging the farmers of the Global Farmer Network were sharing globally.
Clayton Yeutter died in 2017, but the book brings him back to life. I can see that broad grin and hear his voice saying: “We must liberalize world agricultural trade, so that food supplies can flow where they are needed. Trade barriers must be made more expensive for countries that resort to them.”
This principle was fundamental to his life’s work, as he went on to negotiate trade agreements with Canada, Japan, the European Union, and the whole world. Clayton Yeutter made life better for farmers in his own time and his influence continues to make farmers better off today.
As I prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States with my family this week, I have much to be thankful for. Included in that long list are the mentors I have been privileged to have in my life. And this year, special gratitude for the remarkable legacy and friendship of Clayton Yeutter.