U.S.-India: Dealing With Monsoon Failure

The scene plays out in India.

At a reception, I met the head of Indian operations for Esso (now ExxonMobil). When I asked him how business was, he said it was great. In particular, diesel sales to fuel irrigation pumps were nearly double the previous year’s level. Why? Because farmers were pumping continuously to try to save their crops.

Soon after, I met an embassy staff person, an avid duck hunter. He usually took off a few weeks in the fall to go hunting on a lake up north. This year he had canceled his vacation because the lake was dry.

An agronomist who worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) traveled extensively in rural India and often stopped his car in the countryside to take soil samples. But he complained to me that he could no longer get good core samples: the soil was so dry it crumbled and fell out of his auger as he withdrew it.

This was something that I had never seen in my years of farming. I became convinced that India faced a huge crop shortfall.

It was the fall of 1965 and I had come to India because the USAID mission in New Delhi had asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for someone to help them with an agricultural analysis.

What caught my attention in New Delhi right away was the condition of that year’s grain crop. The Indian government officially estimated grain demand for 1965 would be 95 million tons. I soon began to wonder whether a harvest anywhere near this amount would materialize. I found reports of drought in virtually every corner of the country. The drought appeared to be almost everywhere.

Since the United States was the dominant world grain supplier — the only country that could even think about filling a deficit of this scale — this warranted an urgent cable to alert my boss, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman. If a potential deficit of this magnitude was a real prospect, he needed the information as soon as possible.

However, if I were going to sound such an alarm, I needed to estimate the size of the deficit, despite having only fragmentary data. If my estimate of the deficit was too high, the United States would over mobilize and waste resources. But if my estimate was too low, that could lead to famine. I worked to strike the right tone in the cable to Freeman.

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