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Excerpts from "Forward Farm Bureau"

by Stewart Truesen

The American Farm Bureau Federation was the first to popularize grassroots lobbying. Its first lobbyist was a man named Gray Silver.

Silver explained his approach to lobbying so farmers could understand it. He likened it to a farmer and a team of plow horses. “Congress is the team I have in mind, and you are the farmers at the plow, and the Washington office is the jerk line. What is a jerk line for when you hook up a team? It is to get across to the leader what your wishes are.”  One way congressmen felt the jerk line was when Farm Bureau published their voting records in the AFBF official newsletter, something unprecedented in the history of Congress.

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George Mecherle was the founder of State Farm Insurance in the 1920s, which had an early connection to Farm Bureau. 
            
Over time, Mecherle introduced a number of important features to automobile insurance. The first policies provided protection for loss or damage caused by fire, theft or collision with a moving object. The policyholder was protected from liability stemming from injury to another person. Mecherle also established a deductible to avoid a lot of petty claims and encourage safe driving. One idea that didn’t last long was his restriction on collision claims. Mecherle understood how a farmer might hit another car at a country crossroads, but he was unsympathetic to the farmer who hit a tree or fencepost. He thought any driver who struck a stationary object shouldn’t be behind the wheel in the first place.

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The American Farm Bureau Federation and its president, Edward A. O’Neal, worked closely with the Roosevelt administration in bringing hope to rural America during the Great Depression.

In February 1933, a month before Roosevelt’s inauguration, O’Neal warned on radio and before Congress that a revolt more serious and widespread than the farm strike was possible in farm country unless action was taken. On Farm Bureau’s regularly scheduled radio broadcast over NBC, O’Neal said, “When I speak of revolt, I refer to an economic revolt. We are in the midst of an economic revolution right now in this country.” He called on Congress to adopt a farm allotment program and mortgage relief before farmers were driven to drastic measures. “They are “losing their homes, their savings of a lifetime and all incentives for orderly living,” said O’Neal on the air.           

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Harry Truman’s surprising victory in the 1948 presidential election was due in part to his last ditch effort to gain support in Republican farm country. 

If there was a turning point for Truman in winning the farm vote, it came in September at the Sixth National Plowing Contest in Dexter, Iowa. On a hot, sunny day, Truman stood before a throng of 60,000 to 80,000 farmers and accused his political opponents of having “stuck a pitchfork in the farmer’s back.” He said that Wall Street was raising enormous sums of money to elect a Republican administration that will listen to the “gluttons of privilege” first. But he expressed confidence that farmers had their eyes open and wouldn’t be fooled…It was a masterful performance, and who were farmers to believe—Truman, who actually had been a farmer, or the urbane Dewey with his pencil-thin mustache that gave him the appearance of a comic strip villain?

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The documentary Harvest of Shame narrated by Edward R. Murrow exposed poverty among migrant laborers in 1960, but was considered unfair in its treatment of farmers.

Ed Murrow had grown up on a small farm in the state of Washington near the Canadian border. He apparently did not like farm life and was strongly in favor of labor unions, a combination that did not bode well for his treatment of Farm Bureau. In Murrow: His Life and Times, biographer A.M. Sperber said Murrow was once asked why he was so pro-union and shot back, “Because I hoed corn in a blazing sun.”

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Interest in ethanol goes back a lot further than most people realize, and it received ample testing as a motor fuel in the 1930s, but for reasons different than today.

Except for rural electrification, energy was not a hot button issue. It was cheap and plentiful. However, Farm Bureau took an interest as far back as the 1930s in converting farm crops and crop waste to ethanol as a way to dispose of crop surpluses. Ironically, the corn surplus was the result of feeding fewer horses. One-fourth of corn acreage used to go to feed the horses that were replaced by gasoline-powered tractors.

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Mainstream agriculture picked up many opponents over the years and for various reasons.
Many future leaders of the environmental movement did emerge from the anti-war movement and became adversaries of mainstream agriculture. They already were strongly opposed to pesticides because of the use of Agent Orange during the war. The defoliant, a combination of two herbicides, 2-4-D and 2-4-5-T, was sprayed from the air by the U.S. military to remove enemy vegetative cover. Controversies about Agent Orange and health issues affecting Vietnam veterans remained long after the war.