Richard Edmund Lyng, a Modesto agri-businessman who headed both the state and federal agriculture departments under Ronald Reagan and was the first Californian to serve as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, has died. He was 84.
Lyng died Saturday at his home in Modesto of unspecified causes.
Head of the family seed and bean processing company, the Ed J. Lyng Co., started by his father, Richard Lyng entered politics in 1967 when then-Gov. Reagan tapped him as deputy and later director of the California State Department of Agriculture. Two years later, another California politician, then-President Richard M. Nixon, asked Lyng to move to Washington as assistant secretary of agriculture for consumer and marketing services.
For the next two decades, Lyng held positions in government or lobbying groups with major influence in making national agricultural policy. Among those posts was the presidency of the American Meat Assn. lobbying group from 1973 to 1979. Reagan named Lyng undersecretary of agriculture in 1981.
Lyng took a year off in 1985 to work in his own consulting firm. But Reagan recalled him to government service as the 22nd secretary of Agriculture in 1986 after the resignation of Secretary John R. Block. When Lyng was sworn in, he was not only the first Californian, but at 67 the oldest person ever to hold the post.
At the time, the department was struggling to bring American farming out of its worst depression in 50 years while weighing regulation of new technology, including genetic engineering of crops and animals. Lyng, like Block, pushed Reagan's "market-oriented" agricultural policy, reducing government involvement.
Unlike most of his predecessors, Lyng was neither a Midwestern farmer nor an academic. But his experience prepared him for the cabinet level position he held until 1989.
Born in San Francisco, he was the grandson of an Irish immigrant lured to California by the Gold Rush. After graduating cum laude from the University of Notre Dame, he joined his father's company as a field representative, driving the back roads of the Central Valley to sell farm supplies.
Lyng served in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II then returned to his family business, becoming president in 1949. Company earnings more than doubled under his tenure.
Widowed in 2000 by the death of his wife of 56 years, Lyng is survived by their two daughters, Jeannette Robinson of Modesto and Marilyn O'Connell of Winterville Valley, N.H., and five grandchildren.