D. W. Brooks, who led Gold Kist Inc., an Atlanta-based farm cooperative, for forty-seven years, was a major figure in American agriculture from the era of the Great Depression until his retirement in 1980. Brooks also served as an advisor on agriculture, economics, and trade to seven U.S. presidents.
David William Brooks was born in Royston, in Franklin County, on September 11, 1901, to Lettie Jane Tabor and David William Brooks. He was reared on and around his father’s five department stores and several farms in northeast Georgia. In those years the young Brooks gravitated more to the farms than the stores, and he quickly developed an affinity for farming. His interests would become focused on ways to improve agriculture versus day-to-day farming. In 1930 he married Ruth McMurray, with whom he had two children, David William Jr. and Nancy Ruth.
Brooks entered the University of Georgia (UGA) in 1918 and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1922. The next year he completed a master of science degree in agriculture and was hired as a teacher by the UGA agronomy department, where he taught until 1925, when he became a field supervisor for the Georgia Cotton Growers Cooperative Association. During this time Brooks grew increasingly concerned about the plight of Georgia farmers. After World War I (1917-18) and continuing into the Great Depression, agriculture slipped into a severe economic downturn due to many factors, including a boll weevil invasion and lack of demand for certain crops. By 1932 per capita income for Georgia farmers had dropped to $72 per year.
Launching Farm Cooperatives
During his years as an academic, Brooks developed a dream of agriculture leading the way to a world without hunger and at peace. He believed that the way to turn the dream into reality was to make agriculture profitable and prosperous; for farmers to achieve that status, they had to cooperate. Most attempts before the 1930s to create successful farm cooperatives in the United States had failed, yet Brooks’s economic studies and travels to observe first-hand successful cooperatives in California and the Midwest left him convinced that cooperatives could handle many of the economic problems of farmers. In 1933 Brooks decided, against considerable advice to the contrary, to leave teaching and get involved in forming a cooperative to help farmers. He told his wife that it was too late for “talk-teaching. Do-teaching will be a lot faster.”
Brooks moved in 1933 to Carroll County, one of the largest cotton-producing areas of the state, and he and five farmers from that area formed the Georgia Cotton Cooperative Association, which later was called the Cotton Producers Association (CPA). Brooks put his earlier studies and observations about cooperatives to use, and the organization was almost immediately successful. For the next forty-seven years, the organization never suffered a loss.
The CPA expanded in 1940 into direct cotton marketing and in 1941 into the insurance business with the Cotton Farmers Mutual Insurance Association (later Cotton States Insurance Company). By the end of World War II (1941-45) the CPA had expanded into fertilizer, farm supplies, seed, and agricultural chemicals that were sold through a rapidly growing network of local farm-supply cooperatives in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina. Later expansions took the cooperative into poultry, peanuts, pecans, soybeans, eggs, and livestock, on a worldwide basis. After the decline of cotton in the late 1960s, the CPA name was changed, and the organization officially became Gold Kist, Inc., in 1974. Brooks and his family relocated to Atlanta, where Gold Kist’s headquarters were located.
Presidential Advisor and Agriculture Leader
A highly regarded leader in agriculture, Brooks served on four presidential agricultural advisory committees, exerting influence on both national and regional policy. From the 1940s through the 1970s he advised every U.S. president: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. He also served as a delegate to the Arden House, in Harriman, New York, which was organized in 1954 to consider changes to the United Nations Charter. He was named “Man of the Year in Agriculture in Georgia” in 1950 and “Man of the Year in Agriculture in the South” in 1966, both awarded by Progressive Farmer magazine. In 1972 he was the first inductee in the Georgia Agricultural Hall of Fame. He sponsored a lecture series at UGA named in his honor, which focuses on agriculture and recognizes outstanding teaching, research, and Cooperative Extension Service faculty at the university.
After he retired in 1980, Brooks refocused his efforts from agriculture to community service, serving as a trustee of Emory University, Wesleyan College, Reinhardt College (later Reinhardt University), and the UGA Foundation. Active in the United Methodist Church, Brooks was a member of the Board of Managers and Board of Missions of the church and served as vice president of the World Division of that association.
Brooks donated his papers, including an extensive oral history collection, to the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at UGA. The collection provides rich documentation of agribusiness in Georgia, national and international trade relationships and policy making, and the development of modern Georgia.
He died on August 5, 1999, in Atlanta.