Anytime you’ve got grain, you’ve got rats.” —Corky Jones, president, American Ag Movement, circa 1980
Opposition, Losses, and Other Tragedies
Milo Reno called the American Farm Bureau “the bastard child of the railroad trust and the Chamber of Commerce.” The enormous early success of the cooperative elevators, livestock commissions, exchanges, insurance, and other ventures cut US business monopolies to the quick, as co-op market share increased rapidly in every sector. Desperate to derail the cooperative movement, the US Chamber of Commerce and the railroads, with the complicity of the USDA (which preferred to deal with a more docile farm organization than Farmers Union), invented the AFB as a rival farm organization with a vague and watered-down mission statement similar to, but lacking the edge of, Farmers Union. Today, the Farm Bureau is supported by mandatory dues from its enormous insurance operation—six million members claimed, though US farmers number less than two million. Today the Farm Bureau continues to confound farmers with counterproductive political recommendations and rhetoric. Along with many check-off funded commodity organizations such as the Cattlemen and National Corn Growers, the Farm Bureau at both the state and national level effectively serves the interest of food processors, some of the largest and most powerful multinational corporations on earth.
The first state Farm Bureau was organized in 1915 in Missouri. The national was organized in 1919 and, besides being bankrolled by heavy hitters, was allowed to piggyback its activities on the cooperative extension service. L S Herron insisted that the AFB was not a true farm organization, “simply a branch of the extension service.” He accused the 4-H of price-fixing fair-exhibited livestock with the packers and said AFB political activities were not in the best interest of the small farmers. Farmers Union was a true farm organization, Herron wrote, because only Farmers Union held to “co-operation as a comprehensive economic remedy in and of itself.”
While Farmers Union has done and continues to win more than our share of political battles, we have lost some big ones as well. The story of Nebraska’s I-300 was detailed in part two of this series and continues to rankle in stout NeFU hearts. A study of old Nebraska Union Farmer issues identifies two more historic losses: the failure to create a Missouri Valley Authority, along the lines of the great Tennessee Valley Authority and the failure to pass the McNary–Haugen Farm Relief Act. This bill, which never became law despite the efforts of President Franklin Roosevelt, his Ag Secretary Henry Wallace, and Roosevelt’s successor President Harry Truman, was a brilliant, controversial plan to raise domestic prices to farmers by simply making it illegal to sell farm products at below the cost of production.
To understand the failure of McNary-Haugen, it is important to understand a fundamental division at the heart of Farmers Union history—the long debate between the Farmers Union pioneers, who placed their entire faith in economic self-help through cooperative development, and the next and subsequent generations of FU leadership, which believed that Farmers Union must function also as a political “pressure group.” Internal disagreement kept Farmers Union from effective lobbying of the New Deal farm legislation, a void into which the Farm Bureau was all too happy to step. (Note: Though Congress has historically been reluctant to pass actual price FLOOR support legislation, during World War II price CAPS for farm production were imposed through the hated Office of Price Adjustment. Needless to say, not all sectors were subject to caps like agriculture, thus many fortunes were made, as always, by war profiteers.)
So, instead of real parity-based price supports, US farmers got production control instead. The Agricultural Allotment Act was the beginning of welfare-style farm programs. Farmers who agreed to abide by federal planting allotments were eligible to seal their harvest and use a loan check, which came in the mail, at 5 percent. They could use this money and sell their product at any time, repay loan and interest, and pocket the profit. If prices remained too low, however, farmers could surrender their sealed harvest to the USDA and walk away, debt free. The AAA set in motion decades of future farm policy that made farmers and price subsidies vulnerable to caricature. Johnny Carson was among many comics to make joke about farmers being paid NOT to plant crops.
The other great failure of NeFU was the loss of the cooperatives. Many historians consider farmers, on the whole, to be apathetic and unpredictable political actors. However, the enormous and ongoing success of the cooperative movement helped bring farmers together. During the New Deal and the Fair Deal that followed, farm and labor political interests seemed often to coincide. A REAL farm labor coalition could not be brooked by monopoly capitalists, and the so-called Committee for Economic Development policy was created and sold by the University of Chicago and others.
“Excess” farm labor was to be pushed off the farm and into the cities, where displaced farm families would compete with city dwellers for jobs, making labor cheaper. And that is exactly what those same interests, the grain trade and the packers, were able to do, largely with the help of the Republican Party. When I was born in 1951, there were six million farm families in the US. Today, when I am sixty-three, there are fewer than two million.
The stealth capture of the co-ops by Farmers Union-averse interests, friendly with Farm Bureau and the commodity organizations, was a very nasty piece of work. NeFU President Elton Berck, a high-minded, upright man of great talent and presence, and kindly Louis Wiebe, the Mennonite minister and farmer who succeeded him, were blindsided. Berck brushed the idea aside, and Wiebe was unable to turn things around. By the time Neil Oxton, an insurance man from South Dakota, was elected president of NeFU and began to set the union on a sounder footing all around, the organization’s future was very unclear, as John Hansen has described in his piece on Oxton’s 2013 death.
After the loss of the elevator, creamery, and other co-op checkoffs, much of that funding went to commodity organizations. For some years the CENEX Foundation continued to offer generous support to state Farmers Union organizations to conduct cooperative education. In recent years, however, the foundation has gone, as they say, “in another direction.” The loss of the NeFU Youth Camp program, operating as early as the 1930s and which President John Hansen was able to resurrect from 1990–2008, like the decision to discontinue publication of the Nebraska Union Farmer, was heart breaking.
Long Record of Achievement
Many of the great populist institutions that make Nebraska such a great state and such a political puzzle to outsiders are Farmers Union legacies. By 1914 NeFU was calling for public power, and dozens of Farmers Union members—thoroughly sold on economic self-help through co-ops—helped found the rural electric associations and rural telephone co-ops that continue to serve rural Nebraskans so well today.
Farmers Union members were early supporters of biofuels production. A 1944 Union Farmer letter to the editor calls for farmer cooperative alcohol plants to be built to run on corn and other grain. The Nebraska Ethanol Board created in 1971 by the Nebraska legislature was the first state agency in the United States devoted solely to the development of the ethanol industry. NeFU and the American Corn Growers Association has worked tirelessly over four decades with the Nebraska Ethanol Board to develop the state’s enormous ethanol industry.
The fathers of modern wind development in Nebraska—American Corn Growers Foundation CEO Dan McGuire and ACGF Chairman Gale Lush—are NeFU officers, District 5 and 3 directors, respectively. When McGuire and Lush brought NeFU President John Hansen to see wind pioneer developer Dan Juhl at his wind farm on the Buffalo Ridge of Minnesota in 2005, Hansen saw the possibilities for community-based energy development in Nebraska.
In 2007 as a result of the ACGF-NEFU connection with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, McGuire and Hansen formed the Nebraska Wind Working Group. Three hundred and fifty people attended the sixth annual Nebraska Wind Conference in November 2013 in Lincoln. Hansen and McGuire cochaired the event with Adam Herink. (Note: McGuire and Lush also took the author and other faculty and students from Southeast Community College-Milford Campus to visit the Juhl wind farm. As a direct result of interest sparked by that trip, SCC-Milford today boasts a program to train renewal energy technicians.)
NeFU members, including John Hansen, were founders of our state’s unique Natural Resources Districts system, wherein environmental policy is determined by watershed, not artificial political boundaries. NeFU was early to call for soil conservation districts and to advocate the farmer-elected committee system.
One of NeFU’s most significant accomplishments, county zoning across the state, took place during the Hog Wars. In 1998 large-scale hog developers decided to push into Nebraska. Over a single summer the number of hog lagoon applications to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality tripled. In central Nebraska a loose confederation of citizen groups came together under the acronym PRIDE, People Responding In Defense of the Environment. Mid-Nebraska PRIDE and NeFU joined to press for I-300 enforcement and other legislation. In 1998 only a handful of Nebraska counties had ANY zoning plans in place. Within two years half the counties in the state had zoning plans—to give local citizens oversight on development, water use, and more—and another dozen counties were in the process. Today, all but two counties in Nebraska are zoned.
The year 1900 through World War I is often called a “golden era” for American agriculture. Production costs were low, and the value of farm commodities was relatively high. The idea of “parity”—so dear to the Farmers Union movement—gained currency. Parity means that the purchasing power of ag producers, relative to that of other workers, was roughly equal or at least acceptable to most US farmers. When cost of production rises and prices fall, parity declines.
NeFU has worked for better livestock markets since the Livestock Commission was founded in 1917. Since the dissolution of the commission, NeFU has been party to lawsuits pressing for Packers and Stockyards Act enforcement and has also sought legislation for market transparency and fairness. NeFU was calling for country-of-origin labeling in the 1980s. In the late 1990s NeFU helped author state mandatory price reporting legislation, which became the model for federal law.
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To this point, my essay has offered material from sources readily available to even casual scholars. However, a meaningful overview of recent Nebraska Farmers Union history does not yet exist. I am no historian, possessing neither time nor temper to write that book, but along with NeFU’s centennial-year history project—which will be both authorized AND abridged—I am compiling a document of bio sketches and statements of NeFU activists, key organizational partners, and outstanding elected officials and staff—folks who have done so much with so little, these past two decades, that we can practically do the impossible with almost nothing.
Crampton, John A., The National Farmers Union: Ideology of a Pressure Group (UNL Press, 1965).
Dux-Ideus, Sherri L., “Greatest Good for the Greatest Number: L. S. Herron and the Nebraska Farmers Union Movement 1911–1945,” MA thesis, December 2001, History, UNK, dedicated to Marvin Dux.
Dahlsten, Andrew, “The Madison County Plan.pdf,” first-person account of the Holiday Association of Madison County, archived at Nebraska Farmers Union.
Nebraska Union Farmer, archived online at https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B-jPnzsU42gOQ2NkZzlMZm4tZlU&us p=sharing.
Shover, John L., “The Farm Holiday Movement,” Nebraska History 43: 53 ff.