Celebrating 100 Years of the American Farm Bureau Federation – Part I (10/11/2019)

This year, 2019, marks the 100th Anniversary of the American Farm Bureau Federation. The history of the Farm Bureau and the Cooperative Extension Service is closely intertwined. In this Friday Footnote, we will explore how the Farm Bureau came to be and its relationship with Extension.

Image Source: American Farm Bureau

While the American Farm Bureau Federation was formed in 1919, just like the FFA, a number of states had viable state-level organizations prior to the establishment of a national organization. The Farm Bureau is found in most states and many professionals in agricultural and extension education are familiar with their work.  However, you may not be aware of how the Farm Bureau came into being.

In the Beginning

The early 1900s was a time of discovery and growth in America. This was also true in agriculture. Many communities were looking at how to improve farming and farm life. This was true in Binghampton, New York (Broome County). The local Chamber of Commerce along with the Lackawanna Railroad were exploring ideas as to how to help the agricultural community succeed and flourish. If the farmers flourished, so would the community.

The Binghampton Chamber of Commerce had a Traffic Bureau, a Manufacturers’ Bureau and several other subdivisions. They established a committee to see what could be done to promote agriculture. The first idea was to establish a demonstration farm, but that idea was not widely embraced (Kile, 1948).

The second idea was to employ a “county agricultural expert” similar to the “county demonstrators” in the southern states. That idea stuck. The Chamber of Commerce, USDA and Lackawanna Railroad all contributed funds to make this happen. On March 20, 1911, John Barron, a graduate of Cornell was hired to work with the farmers in the area. He was officially employed by the Chamber of Commerce in their newly created “Farm Bureau.”

In looking for office space for Mr. Barron, it was decided to put him in the train depot since the railroad helped support him financially and had space. At one end of the train station there was a ticket “agent”. The other end housed Mr. Barron – the agricultural “agent”. The terminology of calling the agriculture expert an “agent” supposedly came from this arrangement.

In the winter of 1912, the New York State legislature authorized county boards of supervisors to make appropriations to support these types of efforts. The Broome County supervisors then appropriated $1,000 to support the work of the farm bureau.

The farmers in Broome County were not enthralled with the idea of city folks (i.e. the Chamber of Commerce) being in charge of farm extension work. So the farmers established the Broome County Farm Improvement Association and took over the extension work under the name “Broome County Farm Bureau.” Even though there was a change, the Chamber of Commerce continued to work closely with the newly created Broome County Farm Bureau. In 1914 the Broome County Farm Bureau started charging a membership fee.

Soon counties across the country were establishing local “Farm Bureaus” for the purpose of conducting agricultural extension work at the local level. The process and procedures varied greatly from state to state. In the northern and western states the local organizing group was typically called the County Farm Bureau (Howard, 1983). In states with county farm bureaus, the membership fee was typically $1 to $5 a year. In other states there were a variety of names for groups that sponsored extension work such as the Soil Improvement Association, Council of Agriculture, etc.

The Dekalb Illinois Soil Improvement Association later was renamed the Farm Bureau

 (Image Source: Illinois Farm Bureau)

It should be noted that there was “farm demonstration work” in the south prior to Broome County. However, the funding model and leadership was different. The individuals employed to do this work were paid primarily by the General Education Board (a philanthropic organization created by John D. Rockefeller) or Julius Rosenwald (the President of Sears-Roebuck). The USDA provided a salary of $1 so that the individuals could use franking (mailing) privileges. There was also some local financial support. These individuals typically were considered USDA employees. The state agricultural college might not be involved.

The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 created a national system of extension. This act called for federal, state and local support of extension activities. However, the implementation of the legislation varied considerably from state to state (Block, 1960). Several states specifically identified the county Farm Bureau as the agency to deliver extension work in their state statutes. These states were New York, Arizona, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Rhode Island, and West Virginia. In several other states (Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska) an organization of farmers above a minimum level was required in order to qualify for extension appropriations. Even though the Farm Bureau was not specifically named in the legislation, that was the county group that received the funding. In other states, the legislation was not as restrictive but in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, New Hampshire, and Vermont it was the county Farm Bureau that received extension funds. By June 30, 1918 there were 791 county farm bureaus (Block, 1960).

A Farm Bureau office in California. The county farm advisor (what county agents were called in California) operated out of the Farm Bureau. Image Source: University of California

So exactly what was the purpose of the Farm Bureau? The definition of a county farm bureau as written into law in New York and other states was (Kile, 1948, p. 41):

A county farm bureau is an association of people interested in rural affairs, which has for its object the development in a county of the most profitable and permanent system of agriculture, the establishment of community ideals and the furtherance of the well-being, prosperity, and happiness of the rural people through cooperation with local, state, and national agencies in the development and execution of a program of extension work in agriculture and home economics.

It is clear that the farm bureau was responsible for extension work in agriculture and home economics.

Image Source: The County Farm Bureau, University of California

(the bottom right of the sign says Farm Bureau)

With the growth of county-level farm bureaus in many of the states, the idea of having state associations materialized. It would be advantageous to have statewide meetings involving all the county farm bureaus. Missouri, Massachusetts, and Vermont formed state federations of farm bureaus in 1915. Illinois followed suit in 1916. In 1917 New York created a state federation of farm bureaus. Several other states followed in 1918.

After a number of states established state farm bureau federations there was a movement to establish a national farm bureau federation. A meeting involving several states was held in New York to discuss the idea in February of 1919. Plans were then made to have a national meeting in Chicago in the fall with the purpose being to establish a national organization. And the rest, as they say, is history. Thirty-four states were represented in Chicago on November 12, 1919 when the American Farm Bureau Federation was officially established.

Concluding Remarks

The relationship between the Farm Bureau and the Extension Service continued for a while, but then there was a separation where each group became separate entities. In the next Friday Footnote, we will explore the reasons for the separation and look at the activities of Farm Bureaus in the modern era. Even though the two groups are now separate, there is still close cooperation between the two groups. The farm bureaus are also strong supporters of agricultural education and the FFA. So, stay tuned for the next Friday Footnote.

Teaching Ideas

  1. Show the 36-minute video on the History of the Farm Bureau. https://www.fb.org/videos/the-voice-of-agriculture-1919-2019.
  2. Invite a representative of the Farm Bureau to your class to discuss the activities and programs of the Farm Bureau.
  3. Most state Farm Bureaus hold their annual meetings in the late fall. Check with your local or state Farm Bureau if some of your students could attend a day of the annual meeting. Have these students report back on what they experienced.
  4. Many states have a Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher program. If your state has such a program consider inviting members of that group to speak to your classes. Of you might attend a meeting of this group.
  5. Show a video of the Young Farmers and Ranchers discussion meet or attend a discussion meet. Here is a video of the 2018 Final Four https://www.fb.org/videos/yfr-discussion-meet-final-four-2018. (it is 47 minutes long)
  6. Have your students interview a Farm Bureau member to learn why that person belongs to the Farm Bureau.
  7. Have you students do research on the Farm BureauGrangeNational Farmers Union, and National Farmersand have them write 1-2 paragraphs on which organization they would join and then give reasons for not joining the other organizations. If your class is small, students could work in groups and make presentations about the organization assigned to their group.


Block, William J. (1960). The Separation of the Farm Bureau and the Extension Service. The University of Illinois Press: Urbana.

Crocheron, B. H. (1914). The County Farm Bureau. University of California, College of Agriculture. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t52f8t59t&view=1up&seq=3

Howard, Robert. P. (1983). James R. Howard and the Farm Bureau. The Iowa State University Press: Ames.

Kile, Orville M. (1948). The Farm Bureau Through Three Decades. The Waverly Press: Baltimore.