American Farm Bureau, Celebrating milestones in 2011 as a leading U.S. ag organization
“The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) organization was founded in 1919, and this year the New York Farm Bureau celebrates its 100th anniversary, and the AFBF celebrates more than 50 continuous years of increased enrollment,” says retired AFBF Director of Membership Development and Managing Director Mike Stanton of the many reasons the organization is celebrating in 2011.
During WWI, one out of every four doughboys was from a farm, and those fortunate enough to return home found organized bureaus put together by fellow farmers who were happy the war had ended, but also fearful that the farm prosperity it had brought might end, too.
“The first local Farm Bureau (FB) started in 1911 in Broom County, New York. It started with the assistance of the USDA, the local chamber of commerce and one of the big railroads of the time – Lackawanna,” explains Stanton. “In 1914, the Broom County FB became independent of the chamber of commerce and the USDA, although in some states the FB and cooperative extension service continue to maintain very close relationships.”
A video entitled “Farm Bureau, Our History, Our Times” says the USDA liked the relationship developed by the Broom County FB and extension so much that the agency developed a motion picture about a fictional elderly resident of a county known as Pleasant View. Determined not to be outmatched by a rival county next door, the main character showed how to successfully organize farmers and other rural residents and form a Farm Bureau.
The organization was viewed as more rational than the farm union and less ritualistic than other organizations, and rural Americans flocked to the growing organization for a membership fee of about three dollars per year.
By 1919, hundreds of county FBs created federations in a dozen states, and in November 1919 leaders from 34 states gathered in Chicago, Ill. to form the AFBF.
“Five hundred members got together, in a meeting, and put together the constitution, the first resolution for a policy book, and elected the first president – a man by the name of James Howard of Iowa,” adds Stanton.
“If I were to state, in a single sentence, the underlying issue of the earlier years, it would be this: To establish, for the farmer, through his organization, the collective freedom of speech and infliction of equality that is guaranteed to all citizens under the bill of rights by the Constitution of the United States,” stated Howard after being elected.
“The reason FB gained influence very quickly in the legislatures was because it was able to put together an alliance of Midwestern grain producers and southern cotton, rice and peanut producers, which became known as the farm bloc.
“The FBs encouraged that, because if it was good for the Midwest, you could get those lawmakers to support southern objectives and the southern lawmakers would support Midwestern objectives,” explains Stanton.
While the 1920s were roaring in cities, life out in the country proved to be anything but equal. The video notes that farm prices plunged, as many had feared. Low prices, surpluses and limited opportunities for credit also remained.
Stanton adds that during this time the AFBF formed a women’s committee, was a key player in getting the Capper-Volstead Cooperative Act passed and, in 1923, began working on a way to get electricity to rural parts of the country. During the early 1920s, they also put together an office for public policy advocates in Washington, D.C.
In 1925 President Coolidge failed to meet the standards of the organization when he addressed their meeting, and Illinois farmer Sam Thompson was elected president of the AFBF to lead a more aggressive fight to improve rural life.
“Every AFBF member has reason to be proud of the record of achievement in carrying out the high purpose of the organization, during the most perilous times ever experienced in America,” stated Thompson during his term.
As the Great Depression hit, farm prices tumbled 50 percent between 1929 and 1932, net income per farm averaged about $450 a year and FB lost nearly half its membership.
Alabama farmer Ed O’Neil led the fight back as the newest AFBF president, warning against panic and rallying support for federal intervention to cut farm production in return for cash payments to boost farm income. O’Neil, and his Midwestern vice presidents, forged a bond between cotton and corn that proved invaluable in Washington, D.C.
“In 1933, President Roosevelt called on the AFBF, working through its states, to come up with a plan that would stabilize what was going on at the farm. That first bill, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, has morphed over the years into what some people now call the Farm Bill.
“What it did was allocate $2 billion to lower loan rates, and to stop bank foreclosures. It worked, and was one of the first achievements of the AFBF,” notes Stanton.
By the end of the decade, the FB’s many legislative victories, continued extension work, creation of cooperatives and insurance services for members, and the popularity of farm women communities and youth programs had farmers and ranchers smiling, and signing up enough to triple the organization’s membership.
“From every sector of America came representation of 450,000 organized farmers to attend the 20th anniversary convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation, now the nation’s most powerful farm organization,” states the video of the AFBF’s 1929 convention.
“American farmers are used to big orders. They got one, special delivery air mail, on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941,” says the video, adding that FB members joined the line for the war cause. Meanwhile, demand for food and fiber skyrocketed and prices jumped, while the war drained farm manpower. Despite these obstacles, those deferred from military participation piled up new production records for the war and post-war recovery.
In 1944 a young people’s committee was formed, and that became what is the Young Farmers and Ranchers today. Stanton said this committee came about as the leaders looked at ways to ensure FB stayed strong, as their more experienced leaders moved on to different things in their lives.
In 1946 the organization celebrated victory at its annual convention in more ways than one. The war had ended a year earlier, prices for crops and livestock remained stable, and the organization reached its long-sought goal of one million members.
Over the second half of the 20th century, the AFBF continued to fight for rural farmers and ranchers across America. This included utilizing new media outlets, such as the TV and computer, helping farmers integrate into a world marketplace and dealing with the farm debt and high interest rates in the 1980s.
“While you may look at this as history, I look at you as the people who will shape our history. You’re making the decisions that will enable all of us, 50 years from now, to say, ‘Boy, what a strong organization we had,’” says Stanton to those who watch the video.