The Farm Bureau – Part II – The Divorce (10/18/2019)

Last week’s Friday Footnote looked at how the “Farm Bureau” got started. If you remember, the Chamber of Commerce in Binghampton, NY created a division called a “farm bureau” within the structure of the Chamber to promote agriculture in 1911. This “farm bureau” hired an agricultural expert to work with the farmers of the area.

This idea caught on and soon many states were establishing county farm bureaus so they could employ a person to be an agricultural advisor to the farmers. After the Smith-Lever Act was passed in 1914, which established a national extension system, numerous states passed legislation requiring local groups to organize in order to receive federal and state funding to support extension activities. As a result, local county agricultural associations were formed. Many were identified as farm bureaus. Their purpose was to provide extension services to the farmers and their families. So, basically the farm bureau and the Extension Service were one and the same in the early 1900s. Smith and Wilson (1930, p. 150) confirm this by stating “At its [Farm Bureau] inception it was primarily an extension organization.” In about 2/3 of the states an organization known as the Farm Bureau was responsible for extension work. By 1930 there were 45 state farm bureau federations and 1,800 county farm bureaus (Smith & Wilson, 1930).

This 1918 newsletter from New York clearly shows the Extension-Farm Bureau Connection


As the extension agents worked with farmers the idea of buying items cooperatively such as feed, farm supplies, and fertilizers in bulk emerged. If a train carload of fertilizer could be bought and then divided up among the farmers this would save the farmer some money. Who was the logical person to facilitate this? The County Agent. He had taken soil samples to determine what the fertility needs were. So, the county agent took orders and collected money to order the fertilizer and then helped distribute it when it arrived. The county agent was willing to do this because it helped justify his existence (Kile, 1948).

This did not sit well with local feed and seed stores. They complained to the chemical companies and elected officials. They viewed this as unfair competition since the great majority of the county agents’ salaries came from federal and state funds. The large fertilizer companies joined the fray to protect their local dealers. There was a major outcry.

  If you examine the agencies involved in this extension letter you will see the Farm Bureau is listed

Another issue the emerged was that some county agents actively promoted membership in the farm bureau and collected membership dues. These agents would send out letters (using the franking privileges accorded to government agencies) advertising organizational meetings of farm bureaus and advocating membership in the farm bureau. The more members joining the farm bureau, the more money they would have on which to operate. And the increase in number might give them more prestige and influence.

Other farmer organizations such as the Grange and the Farmers Union complained because the extension agents were promoting just one farm organization – the Farm Bureau. And they were using the free postage provided by the federal government to do so. The other farm organization argued that the extension agents were supposed to be educators, not marketers or salesmen. And they should not get free use of the mail to promote the Farm Bureau. This was a major controversy.

The 1918 NY Extension Service News is promoting Farm Bureau Membership. Notice the bottom left paragraph which states no county should continue to receive state and federal financial assistance [to support extension efforts] if it falls below the requirement that 10 percent of the farmers in a county must be members of the farm bureau.

The “Extension-Farm Bureau Relationship” complaints did make it to Washington. In 1921 the President of the American Farm Bureau Federation, James R. Howard, and Dr. A. C. True (featured in a recent Friday Footnote), head of the State Relations Service of the USDA agreed upon a set of principles to govern the Extension-Farm Bureau relationship and created a memorandum of agreement. It reads (Block, 1960, p. 14):

Since these county extension agents are part of a public service as defined in the Smith-Lever Act, and receive some part of their salary from public funds, they are to perform service for the benefit of all the farming people of the county whether members of the farm bureaus or not, and are to confine their activities to such as are appropriate for public officials to perform under the terms of the Smith-Lever Act. The county agents will aid the farming people in a broad way with reference to problems of production, marketing and formation of farm bureaus and other cooperative organizations, but will not themselves organize farm bureaus or similar organizations, conduct membership campaigns, solicit memberships, receive dues, handle farm bureau funds, edit and manage the farm bureau publications, manage the business of the farm bureau, engage in commercial activities or take part in other farm bureau activities which are outside their duties as extension agents.

This was basically a gentleman’s agreement and there were no penalties identified if these guidelines were not followed. In some states, this agreement was followed but in other states it was basically ignored. For the next several decades there was considerable infighting between the Farm Bureau, Grange and National Farmers Union about the Extension-Farm Bureau Relationship.

During the 1930s, there was even more controversy. Because of the depression, dust bowl, low farm prices, and other associated factors, a number of federal laws were passed that impacted agriculture. Some of these included the Farm Credit Administration Act (1933), Soil Conservation Act (1935), Rural Electrification Act (1936), and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933). The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) provided payments (i.e. farm subsidies) to farmers to reduce acreage in surplus crops in return for benefit payments.

The various farm organizations had major differences regarding the implementation and administration of these acts and other federal policies. For instance, the Farm Bureau advocated that the Soil Conservation Service should be a part of the Extension Service. The other farm organizations were against it. The Extension Service was selected to distribute AAA payments to the farmers which created even more enmity among the farm groups. The Farmers Union complained that when farmers picked up their checks at the Farm Bureau office of the Extension Service they were strongly encouraged to join the Farm Bureau.

To say there was major bickering and political arm-twisting would be an understatement. Nearly every piece of farm legislation drew different reactions from the farm organizations. It was hard for the county agents to not get drawn into the conflict as the Farm Bureaus had legislative agendas. Members of Congress were often contacted and encouraged to vote one way or the other. As an employee of the federal government, county agents were not be involved in politics or lobbying. But since they were often housed in the Farm Bureau, which was involved in politics and lobbying, the optics were not good.

Other groups raised questions about the Farm Bureau-Extension Relationship. An article published in 1949 (August) in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association was titled “Should Extension Service Be Divorced from the Farm Bureau?” The veterinarians objected to county agents conducting disease diagnosis clinics and vaccination demonstrations since the Farm Bureau sold the medications and vaccines (I have been told that county agents often performed veterinarian tasks such as vaccinating and castrating. Perhaps that entered the picture). An article with nearly the exact same title “Should the Farm Bureau and the Extension Service Be Divorced” appeared in the May, 1949 issue of National County Agent and Vo-ag Teacher.

Businesses that sold tires, batteries, insurance, feed, livestock and other agricultural products were concerned about the relationship since the Farm Bureau often handled similar products. If a county agent was visiting a farmer and was asked a question, might he recommend the Farm Bureau item?

A Farm Bureau feed sack from Massachusetts

Here is a sampling of items, both pro and con, about the Farm Bureau-Extension Relationship:

  • Brenckman, Fred (1940, January) “A Through Investigation is Needed”. The National Grange Monthly. The writer asserted the county agents in Iowa and California were recruiting for the Farm Bureau and were dissuading farmers from joining the Grange.
  • At the 1939 American Farm Bureau Federation meeting a resolution was passed that the relationship between the Farm Bureau and Extension be “maintained … and extended.” It pledged that the national organization would “resist all efforts to destroy or impair this fundamental team-work of education and organization which has meant so much to the welfare of farm people throughout the years.” Source: The Nation’s Agriculture, January 1940, p. 24
  • At the 38th convention of the Farmers Union the delegates resolved to “demand that privately-controlled farm organizations be divorced from publicly-supported agencies.” Source: National Union Farmer, December 1, 1942
  • An article in 1944 in Fortune magazine called the Farm Bureau-Extension relationship a “private lobby sponsored and supported by the government.” The article suggested that “the citizen…can properly object to quasi-public sponsorship that the Farm Bureau enjoys.” Source: Galbraith, J. K. (1944, June). “The Farm Bureau” Fortune.

Many more examples could be given. If one wants to delve deeply into all the controversies, they should read the book Separation of the Farm Bureau and the Extension Service by William Block.

The Divorce

All of the charges and countercharges about the “Farm Bureau-Extension Relationship” over the years started to have a cumulative effect.

At an Agricultural subcommittee hearing of the House Appropriations Committee in 1947 the Director of the Federal Extension Service, M. L. Wilson, responding to a question about the Farm Bureau-Extension relationship replied (Block, 1960, p. 107) that “…it would work out better if the Extension Service, which is a public educational interest, were financed wholly by public funds.”

In 1947-48 a joint study committee was appointed to study Extension programs, policies, and goals. The Secretary of Agriculture and the Association of Land-Grant Colleges and Universities appointed members to the Committee. The report, published in 1948, stated (USDA, 1948, p. 20):

This committee expresses its conviction that it is not sound policy for extension to give preferred service to any farm organization or to be in a position of being charged with such actions. The committee is further convinced that it would be in the public interest for any formal operating relationship between the Extension Service and any general farm organization such as the Farm Bureau to be discontinued at the earliest possible moment.

The governing body of the Association of Land-Grant Colleges and Universities approved the report in November of 1948. The report contained recommendations but no official action was taken on the recommendations. So, not much changed. However, the handwriting was on the wall.

In 1949 bills were introduced in Congress to separate Extension and the Farm Bureau. In the House, Representative Granger of Utah introduced H.R. 3222. In the Senate, Senator Thomas of Oklahoma introduced S. 1078. There were heated hearings in the various sub-committees. However, neither bill made it out of committee (Block, 1960).

Since the federal legislation separating the Farm Bureau from Extension failed, state-level legislation was introduced. The legislation was successful in Montana (1949) and Kansas (1951). Nebraska followed along in 1952 (Block, 1960). In 1947 Vermont and Nevada had passed legislation separating Extension and the Farm Bureau. In the early 1950s Minnesota and West Virginia separated. The state Farmers Unions even petitioned their respective legislatures in several states to refuse to appropriate funds for Extension (Benedict, 1953).

In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower was elected President. In the change from the Democrats to the Republicans, new leadership was installed in the USDA. The new Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson and the new director of the Extension Service, C. M. Ferguson of Ohio (where Extension and the Farm Bureau had separated in 1928) were willing to make changes. Both wanted to expand the Extension Service but were aware the Farm Bureau- Extension Relationship could be an obstacle to accomplishing this.

On November 24, 1954, Secretary Benson issued Memorandum No. 1368. This memorandum effectively severed the tie between the Extension Service and Farm Bureau. It specified that no employee of the USDA (extension agents were considered employees of the USDA because part of their salary came from the federal government, they were in the federal retirement system, and they had postal franking privileges) could accept the use of free office space or contributions for salary or travel expense from any general or specialized organization of farmers. Other points in the memorandum prohibited USDA employees from advocating for any organization, soliciting memberships in any organization, using farm organizations to carry out their responsibilities or be involved in commercial ventures of farm organizations (Block, 1960).

Shortly after this memorandum was promulgated, the state Extension Services and Farm Bureaus amicably severed their ties.

Concluding Remarks

Both the Extension Service and the Farm Bureau knew that separating the two was just a matter of time. Neither group was particularly upset with the separation. Schwieder (1992, p. 608-609) describes the reaction to the “divorce” in Iowa (it occurred in 1955):

Some Extension and Farm Bureau officials greeted the “divorce” with trepidation, but the separation offered advantages to each group. Both organizations could then move in new directions. Farm Bureau could further develop business and political activities without fear of compromising Extension’s image as an independent, unbiased public agency. At the same time, Extension officials no longer had to consult with Farm Bureau officials regarding staff, budgets, programs, and policies…The separation in 1955 left Extension free to develop innovative programs based solely on its own perceptions of the needs of its constituents.

Both Extension and Farm Bureau have flourished since the separation. The Friday Footnote for next week will look at the Farm Bureau activities of today. Future Footnotes will look at some of the other farm organizations.


Benedict, M. R. (1953). Farm Policies of the United States 1790-1950. New York: The Twentieth Century Fund.

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

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

Schwieder, D. (1992, Fall). Cooperative Extension and Rural Iowa: Agricultural Adjustment in the 1950s. The Annals of Iowa. Volume 51, Number 6.

Smith, C. B. & Wilson, M. C.  (1930). The Agricultural Extension System of the United States. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

U. S. Department of Agriculture and Association of Land-Grant Colleges and Universities (1948).Joint Committee Report on Extension Programs, Policies and Goals. Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office.