The one thing that will really help the farmer
In 1923, A.H. Stafford, a wheat farmer from the Gallatin Valley, was re-elected to his second term as the Montana State Farm Bureau president. At the annual convention in Bozeman, he urged the members from the state’s 26 county farm bureaus to address issues concerning grain storage, transportation and credits.
“Everybody seems willing to help the farmer — willing to do everything but the one thing that will really help him — that is, to pay him more for what he produces.” – A.H. Stafford, 1923 Montana Farm Bureau Federation opening remarks.
After a year of battling the black stem rust disease in their wheat fields, farm bureau members would turn their attention to issues affecting their work after the harvest was brought in. Farmers were buying inputs in a post-war economy, but still getting pre-war prices. If something wasn’t done to fix the prices, disaster was sure to follow, Stafford warned.
To this point, the farm bureau’s greatest work was primarily in practical application on its members’ farms and ranchers. Here, Stafford pivoted to focus on what the grassroots organization could do to impact policy in Helena and level the political playing field.
At that convention, the delegates took action. They recommended updating the grain grading system to better accommodate for the high quality of Montana grain. The grading system at that time had Montana No. 1 dark northern wheat at the top of the grading system, however farmers were now able to produce wheat with an even higher protein and gluten content. The state federation urged the secretary of agriculture to conduct a hearing in Montana to consider the matter. They requested the grain grades more accurately describe Montana wheat to allow for quality premiums in farmers’ pockets.
Then, there was the matter of where and how to store their wheat. The federation recommended the Montana legislature adopt warehouse laws similar to those recently passed in Nebraska.
“If this proposal should become effective, it will mean that Montana farmers by complying with the requirements of the act, can secure receipts from the state department of agriculture, which will be negotiable the same as present storage elevator receipts.It is expected that this will relieve the congestion always prevalent in the fall, when farmers, because they need money, dump their grain on the market and are at the mercy of inevitable economic condition resulting from a glutted market and car shortage.”(Great Falls Tribune, Jan. 11, 1923)
Transportation was a headache for the farmers, too. The body passed a resolution in support of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence waterway project, and Stafford suggested that the farmers and railroads needed to work in closer relationship.
“The price of wheat grown in Montana is set, in a great measure, he said, by the price it commands at Liverpool. And if the crop can be carried abroad for 10 cents a bushel less when the St. Lawrence river is widened to admit ocean-going vessels, Montana will be a great gainer.”– B. Stockman, miller and exporter (Great Falls Tribune, Jan. 13, 1923).
Farmers were seeking to save every penny, plus make a few, to make it through these unstable years. Optimism from the Great War’s economic drive had caused many banks to over-extend credit despite failed crops and drought. The stock market crash that would trigger the Great Depression was still six years away, but rural Montana was certainly already feeling the pinch.
“Farm conditions didn't improve much in the 1920s. Montana was the only state to lose population between 1920 and 1930. Farmers couldn't pay their debts, banks failed and so did towns. Montana had the highest rate of bankruptcy in the nation in the 1920s.”(Billings Gazette, 2005)
But, President Stafford optimistically reminded the farmers in the 1923 convention hall, those who remained had an opportunity take charge and lead the state to a brighter future for themselves, as well as the generations to follow.
“Out of this wreck of hopes and expectations, out of these heartbreaking experiences of recent years, will come a people with a better understanding of each other’s rights, a people drawn closer together because they have passed through this great depression together, a people with greater loyalty to our state and who will be able to sing as never before, ‘Montana, I Love You’.”
- Great Falls Tribune, Jan. 10, 1923, page 5: “Urges Better Understanding Between Railways and Farms as Market Problem Solution”
- Great Falls Tribune, Jan. 13, 1923, page 4: “Seek New Grading Classes for Grain Raised in Montana”
- Great Falls Tribune, Jan. 11, 1923, page 3: “Law to Authorize”
- Great Falls Tribune, Jan. 17, 1923, page 5: “Export League Head to Speak on Proposed Farm Legislation”
- Great Falls Tribune, Jan. 13, 1923, page 1: “Farm Offers Best Storage for Crop Exporter Asserts”
- Great Falls Tribune, Dec. 17, 1923, page 5: “Export League Head to Speak on Proposed Farm Legislation”
- Thackeray, Lorna, Billings Gazette, May 15, 2005; retrieved online July 30, 2018: “Dreaming on the land.”