A true grassroots effort by farmers and ranchers, with the help of their Extension agents, spurred the beginnings of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation some 100 years ago.
The organization will celebrate its centennial at the 100th Montana Farm Bureau Federation Convention Nov. 11-14 in Billings.
Montana Farm Bureau has actually been celebrating its anniversary all year long.
“Gov. Bullock declared MFBF day in February to coincide with the 1919 date the organization was granted legislative authority to partner with the Extension services,” said Scott Kulbeck, MFBF. “It has really been an entire year of celebrating our 100th anniversary, with special events, and culminating with our annual convention.”
There are 30 county Farm Bureaus across the state, and any member that sees an ag issue, such as water rights, that he/she feels could be a new policy at the state level, can bring it to their local county Farm Bureau, and it climbs up the ladder from there.
The MFBF wanted to ensure the grassroots history of its organization was not forgotten, so Laura Nelson was asked to write the group’s first-ever centennial book.
The centennial book can be pre-ordered at the convention.
Over the past year, Nelson has researched the MFBF history through newspaper clippings, Legislative reports, interviews, Governor’s files and more. She has spent months digging and searching to discover the real MFBF history.
“The Montana State University special collections library and the Montana Historic Society were amazing resources,” she said.
It was not easy. At different meetings and online, Nelson asked members to bring any history clips, photos, old scrapbooks or anything else that she could include in the book.
Why was she so committed?
“I’ve searched through Montana Farm Bureau history, seeking a usable past to help make sense of who we are today and where we might go in the future, at least for the next 100 years,” Nelson said.
The grassroots group started alongside early Extension agents who saw the need for an organization that could bring ag information out to farmers in isolated, rural areas.
“They knew it was important to have empowerment through education, a farmer-to-farmer network of education,” she said.
The first Farm Bureau in Montana was established in Dawson County in 1915.
George E. Piper was the county Extension agent at the time, tasked with not only bringing the latest ag research and education to the state’s farm fields, but also to build up community social life and spirit and help arrange farmers’ clubs.
The new Dawson County Livestock and Farm Bureau was formed that year to “assist the county agriculturalist, publish an exchange list, and to represent the various agricultural and livestock interests,” according to Piper’s 1915 Extension agent report.
“The Farm Bureau idea gained momentum in other counties across the state in the following year, in the midst of the homesteading boom and ample rainfall,” Nelson said.
But in 1917, an intense drought set in, especially in the north central region of the state.
In the same year, the U.S. entered World War I. War propaganda urged Americans to remember that “Food is ammunition - don’t waste it, ” and “Food will win the war.”
“Farmers and ranchers were prompted to grow the additional ‘meat and wheat’ to sustain the U.S. Army, lead to victory and promote world peace,” she said.
But how could they do it with the drought becoming worse, now in its second year?
The Extension Service was pushed into action more than ever before, and with it, the Farm Bureau’s grassroots membership.
Farmers went door-to-door, handing out a survey to their fellow producers about crop and drought conditions in order to make an accurate report to Washington, D.C.
County Farm Bureau leaders chose John Davis, a Teton County farmer, to go to Washington, D.C., to hand deliver the information. There, he requested a federal seed loan to put the next crop in the ground and also “fulfill their patriotic duty to increase production.”
In 1919, Davis was named the first state president of the Montana Farm Bureau.
As the Farm Bureaus evolved, “members realized they not only needed ag education, but they wanted a unified voice for agriculture and support for vibrant, rural communities,” Nelson said.
Local Farm Bureaus worked to build and create camaraderie across the rural counties.
Throughout the 1920s, they built community centers for farmers and ranchers to gather and conduct business, but also to enjoy socials, picnics and game.
“A sense of community was important to the early movement of growing the local Farm Bureau groups,” she said.
In 1919, the leaders of the 23 established county Farm Bureaus gathered in Bozeman and formed the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.
“They came together to unify their voice, and create a larger sense of community. The American Farm Bureau Federation formed that year, as well,” Nelson said.
At the 1920 Montana Farm Bureau convention, leaders decided that growing and supporting local county farm bureaus was their most important task. The leaders voted in 1921 to affiliate with the AFBF and were ready to begin building up the state organization.
After World War I, the unified Farm Bureau separated from its original connection with the Extension Services, due to wanting political action. “Members turned their attention to addressing trade, transportation, taxes and marketing issues that impacted the farmers’ and ranchers’ businesses,” she said.
A core group of values, including helping rural communities, ensured the Farm Bureau would grow. Even in those early days, the Farm Bureau leaders recognized that they would need to connect with their customers in town.
“Farm Bureaus worked to help create connections between rural and urban people,” Nelson said. “They told the urban population that healthy, thriving rural communities would also benefit them.”
In the decades to come, farmers and ranchers worked together through the Farm Bureau to take on diseases and weeds on their farms and ranches.
They pooled their resources to purchase portable cattle sprayers to eliminate lice and cattle grub for their members, and implemented blackleg and early Bangs vaccination programs.
In the early 1960s, MFBF leaders approached the issue of the Wheat Referendum.
The Referendum was the wheat farmers’ annual ballot to vote for or against the federal farm programs that mandated acreage allotments and more.
One farmer/MFBF member challenged the program.
“In the end, members agreed they wanted a free market system, with less federal intervention in their business,” Nelson said. “They launched a grassroots campaign to vote down the Wheat Referendum.”
In 1962, Montana was the only state in the nation that did not approve the Wheat Referendum with the required two-thirds majority.
In 1963, with a little momentum, the rest of the nation’s farmers joined together and voted against the Wheat Referendum, asking for more freedom in their planting and marketing decisions.
“It all started with one county member at one county Farm Bureau meeting asking one really good question,” Nelson said. “That’s the grassroots process in action, and that makes me proud to be a Farm Bureau member.”
Nelson said she wrote the book, hoping it would convey that, “We still need that sense of community early Farm Bureaus had. We are still involved in something greater than ourselves.”
For more on the convention, see https://mfbf.org/Montana-Farm-Bureau.