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Focus on Agriculture

May 8, 2013

Forward in the Digital Age

By Stewart Truelsen

A milestone in the history of the American Farm Bureau Federation was reached on May 3 when the official newspaper, FBNews,was printed and shipped by mail for the last time. In-depth coverage of agriculture-related legislative and regulatory activity continues via a free FBNews e-newsletter and website, fbnews.fb.org.

The newspaper is not a victim of the Digital Age as much as it is a beneficiary of it.

“We’re no longer beholden to an arbitrary deadline,” said Erin Anthony, FBNews editor. “When there is news to share with farmers and ranchers, we can quickly roll with it. The online version is also much easier for readers to share with friends, colleagues, local officials and Congress.”

Thankfully, the newspaper continues, because it has been with the organization almost every step of the way and contributed so much. Shortly after the American Farm Bureau Federation was formed in Chicago in late 1919 it hired a legislative director to work in Washington, D.C. One of the next steps was to issue news releases, op-ed pieces for newspapers and the first Farm Bureau newsletter, which was nothing more than a mimeographed sheet.

By 1921, an information department was formed and the American Farm Bureau Federation Official News Letter was printed. Representation on Capitol Hill and communications with Farm Bureau members were the cornerstones of the organization in those first few years. They were soon followed by cooperative marketing and other member services offered primarily through state Farm Bureaus.

In all cases, Farm Bureau was an innovator and leader. For all intents and purposes it invented grassroots lobbying and the newsletter played a key role in that. It rallied Farm Bureau members to contact Congress on legislation important to farmers and ranchers. This kind of consistent grassroots response to dealings in Washington had never happened before, and it forever stamped the American Farm Bureau Federation as the Voice of Agriculture.

Congress wasn’t especially happy with the newsletter, and there was one thing in particular they detested: their voting records were recorded in the newsletter for all to see, something that has continued to this day. By now, they’ve gotten used to it.

The history of AFBF spans the entire era of modern agriculture. When the first newsletter was published, farming was done largely with horses or mules; adventuresome farmers drove Model-T Fords on rutted roads; rural electrification was still years away; and advances like hybrid corn were just being commercialized.

All that seems light years away, and to think the AFBF newsletter reported all the changes that brought us to where we are today in agriculture; that’s a remarkable accomplishment in itself. In particular, the paper provided thoughtful viewpoints and analyses of farm problems and the actions required to correct them.

Stewart Truelsen is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series and is the author of a book marking the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 90th anniversary, Forward Farm Bureau.