Who’s Behind the Farm Bureau?
Excerpted from the New Republic June 28 1943
Reprinted in The Kansas Union Farmer July 15 1943
The District Agent swung through town with word from the state director of the Agricultural Extension Service that the Farm Bureau was ready to give Farm Security the works in Washington and wanted grassroots support. The House Appropriations Committee was all lined up, but the pressure had to be put on every Senator and every Representative. If the campaign succeeded Extension would take over the FSA. “Get your Farm Bureau to raise hell about the FSA program in your county,” the District Agent said. So the county agent called an emergency meeting of his Farm Bureau board—the judge of probate, the banker, the furnish merchant and the Yankee manager of the insurance company’s plantations.
The probate judge, richest man in the county by virtue of the fee system which put money in his pockets every time a landlord took out a lien on a sharecropper’s cotton, was convinced that the Farm Security Administration was headed hell-bent for communism. So was the banker, whose vault contained mortgage deeds of half the good land in the county. The furnish merchant, who kept people’s tenants alive through the season on doles of salt meat and meal, said the FSA was ruining the hands—getting them to mes around with gardens, chickens, cows and hogs when they oughtn’t to be studying about anything but cotton. This was cotton country, always had been, always would be.
The Yankee manager of the insurance company’s plantations went along with the rest. What he had against the FSA was this labor-stealing. Hadn’t they taken one of his best tenants and put him on a little farm of his own—loaded the poor Negro up with a debt he would have to be paying on for the next forty years? And put electric lights in the Negro’s house, too. The probate judge said the worst thing of all was the FSA loaning its white borrowers money to pay their poll taxes. If that wasn’t unconstitutional, what was? Next thing you knew, they would be encouraging Negroes to try to vote. Yes, the thing had to be stopped before there was bloodshed.
So the Farm Bureau had a free barbecue down at the American Legion hut on the riverbank. A couple of hundred landlords from all over the country were there and when they were feeling pretty mellow from liquor and plenty of pork with the wood taste in it, the county agent made them a speech about how there had to be a stop to the FSA, no two ways about it. He was a safe man, they all knew, never mixed up in this New Deal stuff and a big politicker for the Governor’s machine. If you were on the right side of him he could help you plenty—get your cotton allotment raised and still see you pull down a nice soil-conservation check every year.
After the county agent talked about the menace of the FSA, the probate judge, the banker, the furnish merchant and the Yankee manager of the insurance company reiterated their points. When they had finished, the county agent read a resolution which he proposed their passing and sending to the state head-quarters of the Extension Service. The resolution said the ordinary farmers of the county were up in arms over the FSA’s extravagance and communism and they wanted the program either stopped or turned over to the Extension Service to run. None of the landlords objecting, the resolution was passed by acclamation. Then they all had a couple more drinks on the Farm Bureau and climbed into their cars to drive home.
That is how “the Farm Bureau-Extension axis,” as Jim Patton of the National Farmer’s Union calls it, actually works on the county level. In eleven states the Farm Bureau—a private organization of farmers—and the Agricultural Extension—a public agency supported by federal, state and county funds—are joined by law. In most of the rest of the union the two, though not sanctioned by state enactment, is on what might be termed a common-law basis.
Back in 1930, the Farm Bureau was shown by a Senate investigation to be involved with the American Cyanamid Company and the Union Carbide Company in an attempt to block Senator Norris’ plan for government production of cheap fertilizer at Muscle Shoals. Testimony indicated that neighbor Ed O’Neal, then president of the Alabama Farm Bureau, was particularly active on behalf of the corporations that wanted to sew up the government development for themselves. On the stand the Farm Bureau spokesman, Chester Grey, said he was opposed to the Norris cheap-fertilizer plan because it represented “a gift…a dole…a pension” to farmers. Yet soon afterwards another Senate investigation disclosed that the Farm Bureau had made a desperate play to fish a $94,000 fund out of the American Ship Owners’ Association in exchange for throwing the Farm Bureau’s propaganda resources into the battle for ship subsidies.
From the beginning—as Dale Kramer has shown in his excellent pamphlet, “The Truth About the Farm Bureau”—the outfit has exhibited telltale signs of being kept. The first Farm Bureau was set up by the Chamber of Commerce in the notorious company town of Binghampton, New York. Railroads chipped in to support the promising company union for farmers, as did the Rockefeller Foundation. The Chicago Board of Trade gave a birthday present of $1,000 to each of the first hundred local Farm Bureaus formed. That this company union pattern still prevails is beautifully revealed in a news article appearing in the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser for March 23, 1943. The article also discloses the county agent of the Extension Service in his dual role of Farm Bureau Organizer:
The response of landlords to the Montgomery County Farm Bureau’s membership drive has been excellent, Lem A Edmonson, county farm agent, said last night…
An effort is being made this year to have landlords and farm operators pay dues for themselves, their tenants and their wage units. (The former practice was for county agents to check off Farm Bureau dues from tenants’ and sharecroppers’ government benefit payments. Now, evidently, landlords will simply charge Farm Bureau dues as “deduc’s” against tenants’ accounts.—J.B.) Approximately 400 dairymen and farmers have done this, the agent said. The largest number paid for to date was by W. Chappel Gray, who bought memberships for 81 tenants.
Co-operation of the banks of Montgomery is expressed in the fact that the First National paid $50 for 25 memberships for officers and employees and Union Bank and Trust Company paid $8 for four memberships.
Signs are multiplying that farmers are at last getting wise to the Farm Bureau, as Senator Norris in 1930 prophesied they would, saying, “The time will come when the rank and file of American farmers will begin to realize by whom they are being deceived in Washington!” The Ohio and Vermont Farm Bureaus have broken with the national organization on scuttling the FSA. A bill, drafted by farm interests, was introduced at the last session of the New York State Legislature to sever the legal connection between the Farm Bureau and the State Extension Service. The increasingly obvious collusion between the Farm Bureau and the reactionary organizations like the NAM in support of the anti-labor measures is driving the CIO and the AFL into closed collaboration with progressive farm groups like the National Farmer’s Union. The reactionary extremism of the Farm Bureau may very well be creating the necessary conditions for farmer-labor unity through knocking out the FSA and other stop-gap alternatives. From this awakening to common interests a new and better breed of “literal politicians” may arise at the war’s end to beat Ed O’Neal hollow at his own game.