Look before you leap
The seed of a state farm bureau was firmly planted in 1919. But its sowers were cautious.
As Montana farmers turned the calendar to 1920, they were ready to move forward from the previous three years of droughty dejection. Rural communities cobbled together between homesteading booms were still struggling to find unity. They weren’t ready to extend their new growth too high into the big sky yet.
Still, this band of farming brothers that sprouted in the war and began to bloom in peacetime held promise. After their World War I battle cry to support the boys overseas, it was time to tend the soil at home.
“The farmers’ life is too secluded, and it’s his duty to himself, his wife, his family and his community to do all he can do to develop the community spirit, and I believe the secret is to make every one work and no one shirk. Don’t try to make anyone do something he can’t do, but there is something each can do.”– C.L. Brownell, Big Arm Farm Bureau
The leading story from Montana’s second state gathering of county farm bureau leaders turned their attention to the grassroots. They would not join the newly-formed American Farm Bureau Federation.
“The attitude of the Montana Farm Bureau is simple one of looking before leaping.” – The Montana Farmer.
The American Farm Bureau Federation was ratified in the spring of 1920, nearly a decade after the very first county farm bureau was formed in Brome, New York. But the idea of federation was still new to the Montana delegation.
“It is the basic idea of the farm bureau that growth must be from the bottom up, and not from the top down. Montana’s chief farm bureau problem is to develop Farm Bureau community and community units. This must be done before the farm bureau stands firmly on its feet.” — The Montana Farmer, Feb. 1, 1920.
The federation held promise, Treasure State leaders agreed, but there was no doubt their priority was needed more in the farm fields.
“There was considerable sentiment in the convention that favored pushing the state farm bureau in more vigorous state activity, but the prevailing judgement ruled that the policy should be to work harder for more comprehensive county organization during the coming year.” -- The Montana Farmer, Feb. 1, 1920.
So the 21 county leaders who gathered at the 1920 state convention focused on cultivating their local intent. They articulated lengthy resolutions on how to be a source of cooperation between existing farm organizations, to promote “a more congenial attitude of farmers and townsmen toward each other,” to serve their community and develop local agricultural leaders.
“Too many farm organizations owe their ineffectiveness and their death to the fact that their leaders sought to build on the wrong principle of growth. Natural development is from the ground up. Where this fact is overlooked, the men strive to start at the top with a set of self-selected leaders and force a swift development, failure is nearly certain.
“A county farm bureau that is strong in its local community sub-divisions will succeed over obstacles that would kill a more artificial growth. On the other hand, a farm bureau that is strong at the top and neglects community development will not function as a healthy farm bureau should, and will either perish outright or remain in a state of helplessness and harmlessness until leaders in the different communities take a hand and start the movement where is must be founded – in the community.” – The Montana Farmer
Their dedication to those gains would be tested throughout the year. Federal emergency funding for extension work had ceased the summer before, and not all counties chose to fill the funding gap to keep the agents in office.
“According to an announcement made by F.S. Cooley, Director of the extension service of the Montana State College at Bozeman, the extension work in Missoula County will be discontinued for the present.
“This is a very serious setback to the Farm Bureau work, as a home demonstration agent and the county agent are the paid managers of the Farm Bureau and this action will handicap the Farm Bureau work...” — The Missoulian.
While some Farm Bureaus withered without the leadership of the agriculture agent, others took hold of their roots and flourished that year.
Only time would tell what the harvest would be.
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- The Montana Farmer (Great Falls, Montana), Feb. 1, 1920, page 5: “The Farm Bureau Meets at Bozeman.”
- The Montana Farmer (Great Falls, Montana). Feb. 1, 1920, page 10: “Editorial.”
- Brownell, C.L., The Montana Farmer (Great Falls, Montana). June 1, 1920, page 4: “Farm Community – How can we develop it?”
- The Editor’s Page, The Montana Farmer (Great Falls, Montana), Sept. 1, 1920, page 10.
- The Missoulian (Missoula, Montana). April 25, 1920, page 2: “Farm Extension Work is Dropped.”
- The Butte Miner. June 25, 1920, page 2: “More than 500 at Farm Bureau picnic.”
- The Glasgow Courier. Feb. 6, 1920, page 5: "Farm Bureau Institute."
- The Billings Gazette. Feb. 22, 1920, page 7: "Stillwater County Develops Farm Bureau."
- The Billings Gazette. April 2, 1920, page 7: "County Farm Bureau Movement is Started."
- Great Falls Tribune. Jan. 25, 1920, page 21: "New President Montana Farm Bureau Has Had a Wide Experience in Farm Movements Since Pioneer Days."