John Block (center), former U.S. secretary of agriculture under President Ronald Reagan, speaks with audience members at the Wyffels Corn Strategies VIP Reception at Wild Rose Farms in Knoxville, Ill. Block spoke of being chosen by Reagan to represent the Midwest in Reagan’s cabinet. The former Illinois director of agriculture also gave his view on some of the challenges facing U.S. farmers and agriculture.
John Block (center), former U.S. secretary of agriculture under President Ronald Reagan, speaks with audience members at the Wyffels Corn Strategies VIP Reception at Wild Rose Farms in Knoxville, Ill. Block spoke of being chosen by Reagan to represent the Midwest in Reagan’s cabinet. The former Illinois director of agriculture also gave his view on some of the challenges facing U.S. farmers and agriculture.
KNOXVILLE, Ill. — You’re sitting in a hotel room in California. The sun is in the sky in Pacific Palisades on this temperate December day and snow is on the ground in Springfield, Ill.

You’ve just met with the next leader of the free world and your phone rings.

“This is Ronald Reagan. Jack, I think I want you to be my secretary of agriculture. Will you do it?” that deep, familiar voice, honed by a movie career that preceded the governorship of California and an election on Nov. 4, 1980.

“What am I going to say?” said John Block, whose face lights up even now, more than three decades later, with the memory of the moment he was asked to preside over U.S. agriculture and policymaking. “Of course, Mr. President, I’d be proud to serve.”

Block stood at a podium in a tent near Knoxville to address the Wyffels Corn Strategies VIP reception.

Wild Rose Farms LLC in rural Knoxville is but minutes from Galesburg, a town on the Reagan Trail that traces Reagan’s life in various Illinois communities.

Area Roots

Block’s ties to the area ran as deep — he was educated in a one-room schoolhouse in the area and graduated from Knoxville High School as valedictorian.

Following education at West Point, he served in the military at Fort Campbell. He returned home to Block Farms, the family farming operation near Gilson, that he and his wife own today.

As he returned home to farm with his father, he became involved with the Illinois Farm Bureau, being named Outstanding Young Farmer in 1969, and the hog producers’ association.

Block served as state director of agriculture under former Gov. James Thompson from 1977 to 1981.

“It was great. I could do that job and then come home to the farm on the weekend. I was farming with my dad,” Block said.

He professed a continuing love for his farming and his roots.

“I am still married to this black soil of Illinois and agriculture, and I have been all these years. The farm has continued to progress, and I think it has pretty much prospered,” he said.

Block and his wife, Sue, suffered the loss of their only son, Hans, who was operating the family farm then, in a motorcycle accident in Knox County in 2009. The couple has two daughters, Cynthia and Christine, and several grandchildren.

The Blocks live in Arlington, Va., where John Block serves as a senior policy adviser for the law and lobbying firm of Olson, Frank, Weeda, Terman, Bode, Matz.

Block said he was surprised to see his name on a list of possible candidates for the agriculture job shortly after Reagan was elected.

“I picked up a newspaper and here’s a list. Sen. Bob Dole has ideas about who should be considered for secretary of agriculture, and I was on that list. I didn’t know Bob Dole, but he had people in there, and the state of Illinois is an important ag state. I’m a Republican, and Illinois voted for Ronald Reagan,” Block said.

Admired Reagan

Block said he admired his former boss and enjoyed the years working in the administration.

During his tenure, Block oversaw U.S. agriculture during the farm crisis of the 1980s. He was successful in lifting the grain embargo on the former Soviet Union, imposed by President Jimmy Carter.

He oversaw implementation of the Payment In Kind program, in which farmers were compensated for not planting acres, and the 1985 farm bill. That farm bill officially established the Conservation Reserve Program as it is known today.

Block said weekly meetings gave all members of the cabinet an opportunity to present major initiatives before each other and Reagan.

“I presented my vision of the 1985 farm bill to the full cabinet before we ever introduced it to the public,” Block said. “I got shot down by two or three of the cabinet members, but at least I stood up and put it on the table.”

Block said he remains optimistic, despite challenges faced by agriculture, for the future of U.S. farming and agriculture.

“It used to be where someone’s uncle or grandpa or somebody was in farming and everybody knew about farming. Now, nobody does or not enough people, and that’s a challenge for us. I’m optimistic, even though the corn prices have really gone down, but I’m optimistic we have a great future. Demand for what we do is so strong and in spite of things, and if you look at the world, I think what we are doing is so vital that I think we have a very bright future,” he said.

Block highlighted government regulation or “overregulation,” as he termed it.

“That’s a serious problem for a lot of us in agriculture. EPA, they are the poster child for overregulation,” Block said, referencing the current Environmental Protection Agency proposal to expand the Clean Water Act.

“Research shows it will probably affect 106 million acres. The Farm Bureau says it will affect almost all farms and ranches in the United States. You will end up having to get a permit to dig a ditch, a permit to tile or to dig a well,” he said.

Meeting Challenges

Block said another, immediate challenge is the nation’s infrastructure. He noted that the highway account of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund is expected to run out of money and become insolvent by the end of August 2014.

“There is a bipartisan group working on legislation to do the right thing, in my judgment, and that’s to raise the gas tax. I know people say we don’t want to raise taxes. Then don’t call it a tax. Call it a user’s fee. If you’re going to drive trucks and cars and everything on the roads, well then, pay the tax. Pay for your roads. It doesn’t have to be a lot, six cents now and six cents a few years later,” he said.

He applauded the passage of the newest Water Resources Development Act.

“We desperately need improvements in locks and dams and our water systems. We did get that legislation this year and it is bipartisan and the president has signed it,” he said

Block urged those in the audience to work to speak up for and protect modern U.S. agriculture.

“We need to protect our industry. Genetically engineered crops are so vital to increasing production. We have so many people today who think they know more about farming than we do, and they want to tell us how to do it,” he said.