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Growing a farmers’ organization

Growing a farmers’ organization

The passage of federal and state legislation in the wake of needed food production at the start of World War I provided the beginning of one of the nation’s largest farm groups.

The new laws funded the services of a county agricultural agent to improve farm production and rural living. The goal was to use the funding, under the direction of a locally organized farm group, to place a scientifically trained agricultural agent in every county in the United States.

The eastern and southern sections of the country quickly utilized the program. Iowa eased into the offer at a slower pace.

William Oakland, a farmer living south of Blairsburg and a longtime raiser of purebred Poland China hogs, knew the economic value of scientific livestock production. Seeing the success of county agents in surrounding counties, he set out to bring one to Hamilton County.

Oakland wrote to Iowa State College, now Iowa State University, in January 1917 to obtain information on how to perfect an organization for Hamilton County. Prof. R. K. Bliss replied he should “talk it over with some of your live wires there at Blairsburg and then get in touch some of the live fellows over at Webster City and down at Jewell” and get together to form a farm bureau group.

A media blitz was started in the county newspapers in January and early February 1917, but little progress was made as Hamilton county farmers had no spare time to be attending meetings.

Local farmers scrambled to find seed corn to plant as wet conditions and early frosts in 1915 and 1916 limited availability of high germinating seed. They also contended with a labor shortage as men entered military service. With only a few tractors in the county, most farming operations still relied on four-legged horsepower to grow crops, a labor-intensive process.

Hamilton county newspapers are silent on the progress toward setting up a farm organization during the spring and summer of 1917.

At the same time, Congress passed the food control bill to ensure adequate food supplies for the nation, its military personnel and European allies. The country faced a new crisis in reduced carryover grain supplies. Considerable time and effort was given in the county to encouraging more agricultural production and aiding citizens to understand and live within the new food rationing rules. Families learned to get along on less wheat and less meat.

William Oakland relates in several later interviews that he “drove all over the county” during that time in his quest to generate interest. To organize a county agricultural bureau, a minimum of 200 farmers, landowners and businessmen who would join in at $5 a year dues was needed. Iowa State College also sent staff to aid in forming the group.

On Sept.13, 1917 representatives from twelve of the county’s sixteen townships met in the courtroom at the Courthouse to plan the organization and begin the official canvass for memberships.

Formal organization took place at the Courthouse October 20, 1917 with a beginning of 283 paid memberships.

Permanent officers elected were President W. J. Oakland of Blairsburg, Vice president J. E. Webb of Webster City, Secretary R. A. Bonner of Jewell and Treasurer Wm. Anderson, also of Jewell.

Hamilton County was the 43rd county in Iowa to organize for a farm agent.

A little more than a week later, the new group received three applications for county agent. In mid-November 1917, Chris Christensen, assistant county agent for Hardin County was hired to begin the task.

Christensen had majored in Animal Husbandry at Iowa State College, graduating Valedictorian of the 1913 class.

The local farm bureau organization was required to cover part of the agent’s cost and supply an office and support staff.

By late November, a plan of work submitted by Christensen was approved by the Hamilton County farm bureau. The plan included the eradication of hog cholera, securing seed corn for the 1918 crop and to encourage a twenty percent increase in pork production.

Working out of offices in the City Hall in Webster City, County Agent Christensen began testing corn germination rates to secure enough seed corn for 1918 planting. Availability of seed corn was a state-wide concern because of the low viability of the 1917 corn crop.

By the end of the 1918 planting season, Christensen had made 4,276 germination tests and located an extra 1,493 bushels of corn suitable for seed for Hamilton County farmers.

Farmers where charged with increasing food production to meet the needs of the country and the world. In 1918 it seemed that each surge forward was hampered by a new crisis. An acute shortage of farmworkers slowed the summer harvest season. The farm bureau group helped to find workers. Businessmen throughout the county also volunteered to bring in the harvest. The newly formed Webster City Chamber of Commerce helped coordinate and assign workers with the businessmen donating their “farmworker wages” to the local Red Cross to aid in the war effort.

As part of the educational program, the farm bureau group along with the Chamber of Commerce made plans to hold a county fair for the first time since 1908

Membership had grown to 350 when County Agent Christenson was called to military duty in June 1918. W. F. LaGrange, assistant county agent in Polk county, was selected to act as county agent pro tem in his absence. When LaGrange was also called to military service just three months later, W. H. Stacey of Ames filled the county agent position until Chris Christensen returned from war duty in December 1918.

In September 1918, the Hamilton County Supervisors appropriated $1,500 per year to go toward financing the farm group. A new state law passed in the Spring of 1918 authorized the allowance.

The farm bureau organization was pleased with everything they had carried out in their first year. They had supplied 254 farm laborers and located and distributed 6,000 bushels of seed corn and 4,500 bushels of spring wheat to relieve the shortage. Standard pricing for corn husking was set. An acre corn contest and a corn variety test were sponsored to improve yields. Demonstrations on spraying and pruning orchards, beekeeping, handling poultry flocks, treating oats for smut, proper farm record keeping and preparing income tax information helped provide new techniques. They also did county soil surveys, organized boys and girls feeding clubs and a county purebred breeders association, and resurrected the county fair. A free Farm Bureau Exchange for handling feeds, seeds, labor, and stock was also set up.

The farmers war organization had proven its benefit to the rural community.

When the federal government withdrew county agent support in mid-1919, states stepped up to fund the program as a joint effort with local farm bureaus. Counties were also allowed to increase their support under new laws.

In December of 1918 all the county farm bureau groups in Iowa voted to unite as a state organization. In November of 1919 the state groups united to become a national organization. Agriculture, then the largest single industry of the country, now had a recognized, united voice on marketing and transportation and rural education and legislation.

With 535 members in mid-1919, the Hamilton County Farm Bureau group received $3,000 in funding for education from the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors.

By the end of 1919, local membership jumped to 1,235 members as farmers and their families realized the benefit of an educational organization which improved their business and their lifestyles. The farmers, by joining together, became a recognized business community. Educational programs for both men, women and children ended the isolation of living on a farm.

Home demonstration agents joined with the county agents to teach food safety and preparation and health issues. Both agents worked to start boys and girls livestock and “Home Ec” clubs, striving to aid the youngsters in improving their homes and future livelihoods. These programs soon became an organized 4-H program.

Women were not forgotten as the Farm Bureau groups expanded educational opportunities. Townships were encouraged to organize learning groups to share new techniques and experiences. The groups gained confidence and leadership skills to work alongside their city counterparts to better the lives of all.

The Extension service, under local Farm Bureau guidance, was funded by state and local funds. Their sharing of information and education soon expanded to include city residents.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture ordered in 1954 the Extension service could no longer accept funds or direction from private organizations. New laws dictated the cost and guidance of the local Extension Service must come from public funding and councils made up of all citizens. In January of 1956, while still sharing offices with the Farm Bureau, the Extension Service became a separate entity.

Continuing with the mandate to improve rural health, Farm Bureau become one of the first to offer health insurance to their members. In 1945, the Farm Bureau organized the Hamilton County Health Improvement Association which offered a Blue Cross hospitalization plan to rural families for $25 per year. Only hospitalization costs were covered in the plan.

Today, Iowa’s Farm Bureau is the largest grassroots farm organization. Their mission to educate and improve rural communities remains the same as it was at the beginning.

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