DOVER — Not everyone involved in Bureau County agriculture is old enough to have met Harold Steele.
But the Illinois Farm Bureau, an older generation of farmers and several agricultural publications are making sure that people learn more about the rural Dover man who died this month at the age of 96.
Services for Steele were private (an obituary appears in today’s edition). The Illinois Farm Bureau put up a slide show of photos late last week, showing Steele at meetings as president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, Steele with a piglet on his hog farm, receiving various national and state awards and welcoming people to his agricultural museum and a threshing show.
And farm broadcaster Max Armstrong, who was a new hire for the Illinois Farm Bureau publications when Steele was the organization’s state president, posted personal tributes and retrospective on Steele for “This Week in Agribusiness” on RFD TV.
“As you talk to people, you learn how many people had been helped by Harold Steele in some way or given a lift by him,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong also recalls Steele’s positive influence on U.S. agriculture when he held an important position leading a federal agriculture finance commission and later the Farm Credit Administration during the late 1980s when many farms were failing and overextended, interest rates were high and crop prices low.
Ronald Reagan in 1987 appointed Steele as chairman of the National Commission on Agricultural Finance. Steele reported to Congress. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed Steele as chairman of the board and the chief executive officer of the Farm Credit Administration, an appointment confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
“This insurance company was to establish sufficient funds to protect the investors and securities used by Farm Credit to loan to farmers,” Steele noted to the NewsTribune.
Armstrong said Steele’s brief tenure came at a critical time. Steele brought with him the farmers’ perspective, and a realization that lenders’ policies often had not been generous or understanding of the hardships of farmers.
Bureau Valley Antique Club member Ray Forrer learned a lot about farm history from Steele while helping move equipment in and out of barns at threshing shows on Steele’s farm. Forrer said Steele did not act like someone who had powerful contacts nationwide.
“He was just like everybody else. Well, he dressed a lot better than us. He bought new overalls for his shows,” Forrer said.
Roger Swan of Princeton served as Princeton High School superintendent while Steele served on the school board. He said Steele had his hands full at home with his farming operation, but was “very outgoing” and “willing to do things” to help the community, state and nation. “He had his feet in a lot of things, and I don’t mean that negatively. He was involved.”
In 2000, Steele received the Order of Lincoln Medallion, the highest honor the state can bestow. Recipients become Laureates of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois.
David Silverberg, who retired after almost 37 years as NewsTribune Princeton bureau chief, first met Steele in 1967 at a Pork Producers meeting. He covered Steele’s various appointments, found him to be a valuable resource and wrote a feature story about the way Harold and wife Margery Steele kept in touch with their former foreign exchange student guests as though they also were their children.
After retirement, when Silverberg was back in town, he visited his source who became a friend. He said Steele was an “energetic leader and a very knowledgeable farmer,” and “down to earth.”
Well after retirement, Steele stayed involved. Speaking to a legislative candidate at a meeting of Republicans covered by the NewsTribune and Agri-News in 2004, Steele warned about just a few huge companies involved in agriculture becoming too powerful.
“The ancient Greeks defined oligarchy as rule by a few,” Steele said at the time. He said inputs farmers need and the products they sell were controlled by a limited number of companies. “The consumer also is a victim of consolidation. These companies will set the prices.”