On June 16, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presided over the opening ceremonies for the National 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland, the site for annual 4-H conferences and training programs for youth, volunteer leaders, and professional staff. A year later, he dedicated the new, 11-story headquarters building for the National Grange. It was and is the only private building in a full city block dominated by federal offices directly across from the White House.
It’s hard to imagine that any of our recent presidents would consent to dedicate new buildings for any of today’s agricultural organizations. As rural areas have lost population, the farm block just don’t have the voting clout that they had during the 50s and 60s. Yet, it could be argued that lobbying is just as important to farmers now – if not more so – than it was then.
In the 50s and 60s, agricultural organizations could make or break legislation and get presidents elected – particularly at those rare moments when all of the groups would unite behind a single idea or candidate. That didn’t happen very often.
As far back as the late 1800s, farmers would come together in organizations that would claim to represent all of agriculture. No single group ever did.
The oldest surviving national organization is the Grange. They were organized after the Civil War in 1867 to improve the economic and social position of farmers.
In the late 1800s, several farm groups formed a loose movement known as the Populists, and their candidates sporadically held local and statewide political offices for the next few decades.
Around the turn of the 20th century, new organizations were formed that remain vibrant today. The National Farmers Union was founded in 1902 and emphasized increasing farm incomes through marketing cooperatives and other laws.
The Farm Bureau Federation grew out of the Extension Service movement. In 1911, a “bureau” was set up within the Chamber of Commerce in Broome County, New York, to organize field demonstration days for the Extension Service. Similar bureaus were set up in Missouri, North Dakota, Vermont, Minnesota, Iowa, West Virginia and Illinois. The American Farm Bureau Federation was established in 1920 and concentrated during the early years on educational and social functions.
But by the Depression years, Farm Bureau was a major lobbying organization in Washington. In fact, after they supported him in the election, Franklin Roosevelt allowed the Bureau to write the majority of the language of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of both 1933 and 1938. The AAA became the basis for every succeeding farm bill down to today.
That may have been the height of the farm bloc’s power. By the 1950s, the Farm Bureau had become the voice of conservative, large farmers, while the Farmers Union was more liberal. The Grange was a more traditional voice. The groups took differing positions of major farm legislation and diluted their power.
In 1955, a small group of radical farmers in the Midwest were fed up with all the other groups and worried about the drought and hard times they were facing. They organized into the National Farmers’ Organization (NFO). They borrowed ideas from their radical fathers and the Farmers’ Holiday Association of the 30s and tried to get other farmers to join them. They tried to bargain with commodity buyers to get prices that would reflect the “cost of production plus profit” for their commodities, and they threatened to go out on strike if they didn’t get fair prices. For a time, pickets were set around various markets and some livestock and milk trucks were stopped. But in the end, few other farmers went along with the strike idea, and the NFO is today a marketing association trying to negotiate good export deals for its members.
In the meantime, farming was becoming less diversified, and so farmers began to organize into specific commodity organizations. For instance, in 1957 the National Corn Growers Association was formed to get better terms for their specific growers.
National associations were formed for growers of all of the major commodities – wheat, barley, cotton, feed grains, meat, soybeans, almonds, cattle, chickens, turkeys, milk, dairy products, oilseeds, pork, potatoes, sorghum, sweeteners, apples, eggs, hides and skins, dry peas, lentils, rice – these all have their own associations, and there are more.
Observers suggest that beginning in the 60s, these commodity organizations gained more power in Congress than the traditional, broadly-based organizations because their desires are tightly focused and they are willing to deal with the political realities.
Don Reeves (left) has been a lobbyist in Washington representing a group called Bread for the World. He has seen how important lobbying is. “A large part of the job of a lobbyist is to supply good information,” Don says. “Over a period of time being an honest broker of information pays
In the 50s, Terry Schrick (right) was working with the Nebraska Pork Producers and lobbied in Washington. “The political thing is extremely important as far as I’m concerned,” he says. Terry remembers butting heads with the national executive director of the dairy association, one of the first groups to get high support payments for their members. “The national exec from the Dairy Council came in and talked to us. And boy, you talk about a rude old boy. He didn’t like the idea of us. All of a sudden, here’s another commodity group coming in trying to work with the government because all of a sudden we might be stepping on their toes.”
Today, all of the national agricultural lobbying organizations have learned to work together if they can because their raw voting power has been diminished.