A Strong Tradition of Working for the Collective Good

The Voice of Agriculture 1919 - 2019

This special centennial documentary takes a look back at the history of the American Farm Bureau Federation, explores its impact as the leading national farm organization, and sets the stage for the next 100 years of The Voice of Agriculture.


Organizing for a Voice and a Seat at the Table

The American Farm Bureau Federation was organized on November 12, 1919, in Chicago, Illinois, by Farm Bureau leaders from 34 states. A declaration at the beginning of the convention said, “This country needs the sound, conservative common-sense of the farmers expressed in a collective and organized way.” The newly-minted farm organization gave farmers and ranchers a voice and a seat at the table with the powerful economic interests of the day—business, manufacturing, railroads and labor. American Farm Bureau is the national advocate for farm and ranch families through good times and bad in the belief that a more prosperous agriculture contributes to the well-being of all Americans.

"This country needs the sound, conservative common-sense of the farmers expressed in a collective and organized way."

credit: AFBF

Early Legislative Victories from the Farm Bloc

The Farm Bloc, a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen, first met in Farm Bureau’s Washington D.C., office in 1921. The Farm Bloc was responsible for enacting into law bills that farmers had long sought: The Packers and Stockyard Act required meat packers to engage in fair practices; the Futures Trading Act dampened commodity speculation; the Emergency Agricultural Credits Act allowed government loans for the marketing, export and storage of farm commodities; the Capper-Volstead Act exempted farmer co-operatives from anti-trust laws. AFBF strongly backed plans to convert the Muscle Shoals, Alabama munitions plant to hydroelectric power and fertilizer production. A long-drawn-out struggle in Congress finally ended with the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

credit: Public Domain

Depression, Drought and Dust Sweep Across Farm Country

credit: AFBF

Low farm prices and surplus production plagued the farm economy during most of the ‘20s, but when the Great Depression hit in 1929, conditions went from bad to worse. AFBF President Edward O’Neal impressed on President Franklin Roosevelt that emergency measures were necessary to stabilize agriculture. Farm Bureau took the lead in drafting the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, the first piece of New Deal legislation. In the early ‘30s a drought spread across the southern plains. Strong winds scoured the land lifting “black blizzards” of loose soil in what became known as the Dust Bowl. In December 1935, President Roosevelt addressed a crowd of 19,000 at the AFBF Annual Convention in Chicago, the largest Farm Bureau convention audience ever. By then economic conditions for farmers were improving.

Farm Bureau took the lead in drafting the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933.

credit: AFBF

Mobilization for War, New Markets for Prosperity

The AFBF Annual Convention was underway in Chicago on December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. Agriculture Secretary Claude Wickard addressed a stunned Farm Bureau audience where he emphasized agriculture’s critical role in the war effort: protecting the nation’s food supply. Delegates adopted a “mobilization for absolute victory” resolution and vowed to keep up their end of food production. On the farm, women and boys filled many of the roles left by men who joined the armed forces or worked in war factories. As the war came to an end, AFBF decided that finding overseas markets was the best way to maintain a robust agriculture industry, secure our country’s food supply, and avoid a domestic surplus of ag products.

credit: Public Domain, AFBF

Food for Peace, Land Conservation

credit: AFBF

In 1949, President Truman’s agriculture secretary provoked Farm Bureau with his plan to guarantee farmers high prices in return for drastic controls on production and marketing. Farm Bureau exposed the regimentation of farmers and staggering cost to taxpayers, and the plan was dropped. In 1954, President Eisenhower signed the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, Public Law 480, later known as Food for Peace. The idea originated with a Farm Bureau staffer who directed food aid in post-war Germany as an Army officer. In 1955, Farm Bureau advanced a plan to bank some of the land currently in production. The Soil Bank became the predecessor of today’s voluntary conservation programs.

The Farm Bureau advanced The Soil Bank, a plan for land conservation.

credit: AFBF

Public Policy Battles, a Voice for Reason

credit: AFBF

The U.S. put a man on the moon yet struggled to decide on farm policy. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations favored supply-management schemes while Farm Bureau said the market-price system was the best path to higher farm income. In 1963, Farm Bureau rallied its grassroots to soundly defeat a wheat referendum. AFBF President Charles Shuman called the wheat certificate plan a step toward licensing or franchising farms. The United Farm Workers Union organized a secondary boycott of California table grapes, and Farm Bureau explained to consumers that it was a blatant attempt to impose unionism on agriculture. The publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” also put farmers on the defensive over the environment and pesticide use. AFBF defended farmers responsible and proper use of pesticides and deplored exaggerations of widespread misuse and threat to public health.

Cold War Price Controls and Embargos

Both President Richard Nixon and Vice-President Spiro Agnew attended the 50th anniversary of the American Farm Bureau Federation in Chicago. Two years later President Nixon imposed wage and price controls, including on beef, pork and lamb products. Farm Bureau blamed inflation on government spending for the Vietnam War and Great Society programs, not food prices. The Soviet Union entered the U.S. grain market in the first of a series of blockbuster deals by the Soviets to make up for bad weather in the USSR and to expand meat production. President Nixon clamped an embargo on export sales of soybeans because of dwindling supplies. It was the first, but not the last embargo. The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 led to long lines at American gas pumps and sparked interest in producing fuel from corn, then known as Gasohol.

credit: AFBF

President Reagan kept his promise to end the grain embargo on the Soviet Union.

credit: AFBF

Taking on Farm Debt and Balancing the Budget

credit: AFBF

President Ronald Reagan promised farmers that, if elected, he would end the grain embargo imposed by President Carter on the Soviet Union. He kept his promise. Federal monetary policy curbed runaway inflation but led to sky-high interest rates. Farmers and ranchers who had expanded their operations during the good times of the ‘70s were hit hard. The American Agriculture Movement, a protest group, led a tractorcade on the National Mall in Washington. Farm Bureau’s response to the crisis was to formulate a debt restructuring program that was embraced by Congress, the banks and the Farm Credit system. Farm Bureau sent trade delegations to Europe and Japan to reduce trade barriers and open markets. It also mounted a major campaign to “freeze and fix” the federal budget and supported a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that narrowly failed.

Expanding Trade and Feeding the World

At the 1989 AFBF Annual Convention, Farm Bureau members were told they must think in terms of world markets and value-added products. Improving net farm income and expanding trade were top priorities for the organization. The Uruguay Round of the GATT opened markets in Japan and the European Community and limited E-C export subsidies and set up the World Trade Organization. AFBF joined the Ag for NAFTA coalition, which was instrumental in getting the trade agreement passed in 1993. Farm Bureau also led the way in protecting farmers’ and ranchers’ property rights. AFBF sparred with federal agencies over the Endangered Species Act, definition of wetlands and expanding use of eminent domain, and filed friend of the court briefs in high-profile cases to stop unjustified “takings” of private property.

credit: AFBF

Farming in a Global Economy

“America’s farmers need fairer and freer trade,” said Bob Stallman, AFBF’s new president at the start of the new millennium. AFBF lobbied hard for permanent normal trade relations status with China and for China’s inclusion in the WTO. Farm Bureau was insistent that agriculture be placed at the center of the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations and supported free trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was another significant victory for Farm Bureau because it set a Renewable Fuels Standard requirement for ethanol and biodiesel to reduce reliance on foreign oil.

credit: AFBF

Farm Bureau lobbied for “fairer and freer trade” for America’s farmers and ranchers, expanding markets for U.S. ag across the globe.

credit: Getty Images

Protecting Agriculture’s Sustainability for the Next Century

AFBF launched a “Don’t Cap our Future” campaign in response to a push in Congress to pass cap-and-trade legislation requiring livestock farms and other types of agricultural operations to offset their emissions. Support for the measure soon fizzled out. Farm Bureau scored another victory on a Labor Department rule that would have made it illegal for kids to so much as pick up a wrench on their parent's or grandparent's farm. Farm Bureau exposed the ridiculous rule and DOL rescinded the proposal. President Obama signed a GMO labeling law supported by Farm Bureau that stopped a harmful patchwork of state laws that caused consumer confusion. AFBF mounted a “Ditch the Rule” campaign when EPA attempted a major land grab by changing the definition of waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act. In response to lawsuits by dozens of states and industry groups, including AFBF, several courts blocked the 2015 WOTUS rule, preventing it from being implemented in most states. President Trump issued an executive order to reconsider the rule, and EPA is now rewriting it. While the agency proceeds with its proposal to replace the 2015 rule, AFBF is aggressively pursuing court decisions that the rule was an unlawful abuse of EPA’s power under the Clean Water Act.

Today, AFBF continues its work to build strong agricultural communities and strengthen the lives of rural Americans through grassroots advocacy that addresses ag’s most pressing issues and protects future generations of farmers and ranchers.

credit: AFBF

Today, AFBF continues its work to build strong agricultural communities and strengthen the lives of rural Americans.

credit: AFBF