Remembering The Fertilizer Institute’s Edwin Wheeler

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Edwin M. Wheeler, who headed The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) from 1968-1983, died February 18 in Sarasota, FL. He was 83 years old. Wheeler, a lawyer by trade and a gifted lobbyist, was a colorful — and sometimes controversial — leader, who once chided his members heading off to the golf course during a TFI meeting at The Greenbrier in the mid-1970s during a period of fertilizer shortages to “put away the golf clubs and get into the task of massive production of fertilizer.”

Wheeler brought a knowledge of transportation and the Washington scene. As assistant to the president of the Santa Fe Railroad, he coordinated state and federal legislative activities. Outgoing President Paul Truitt said in introducing Wheeler: “If you don’t recognize the name or the face, don’t be surprised. Wheeler is not a fertilizer man; in fact, he comes to the job without any knowledge or prejudices. What he does have is a strong background in legislative affairs, experience as assistant to the president of one of the country’s leading railroads, and a reputation as a man who gets things done.”

Another industry leader called Wheeler “a quick study who can digest large amounts of information and penetrate the surface and superficial aspects and get to the heart of the matter. He has an analytical mind and can speedily offer new perspectives and new approaches to the problem.”

Wheeler grew up on a 400-acre farm in Marion, KS. His father was a farmer-lawyer. Wheeler followed in his footsteps, receiving his law degree in 1955 after serving four years in the Army during the Korean War.

He was a strong supporter of agriculture and encouraged TFI to take a more active role in solving challenges facing their farmer customers. He accused agribusiness “of sitting on its hands, clucking its collective tongues about the farmer’s plight . . . and letting government come up with attempts at solutions. Agribusiness has been too busy selling products to the farmer to take the time to sell the farmer to the public.”

He broadened the activities of TFI, increasing liaison work with university research in soil testing and pollution, focusing primarily on nitrates and reorganized the association, establishing what he termed “meaningful committees.” He also looked beyond the domestic market, organizing TFI’s first World Fertilizer Conference, still one of the association’s major events each year.

A Great Communicator

But his greatest strength was as a communicator. He was in his element talking to reporters, enjoyed the give-and-take in interviews. And nobody, but nobody was a better interview than Wheeler. He could always be counted on for a colorful phrase or two or three. One that was often quoted was something about the margins on fertilizer being “as thin as a bride’s nightie.” 

But while the press delighted in Wheeler’s directness, his members became disenchanted with his chastisements  to “get out and sell” and fearless forecasts for the years ahead. During his tenure the industry went through periods of overdemand/undersupply to oversupply/underdemand.

From the podium at his last annual meeting as president, Wheeler told his members: “Don’t panic! Fear and panic won’t get the job done. Don’t anticipate any major turnaround in 1983. Until commodity prices change we must produce for demand. And by all means, don’t bad-mouth your industry.”

Six months later, he was asked to resign.

His reign as TFI president was often turbulent, but he should be credited for successfully leading the merger of the National Plant Food Institute and the Agricultural Nitrogen Institute in 1969 to form TFI, which remains a vital voice for the fertilizer industry.

Sine is a former assistant editor of American Vegetable Grower and American Fruit Grower magazines. She currently is editor-at-large at Meister Media Worldwide.

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