Washington State Farm Bureau

  • By Trista Crossley
  • Posted 3/03/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21183
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Since 1920, the Washington State Farm Bureau (WSFB) has served as a political voice for Washington state farmers, bringing local and county issues to the attention of state and federal legislators. The WSFB also serves as a central point of cooperation with other state and regional agricultural organizations. Many of the issues the organization addressed in the past century are as relevant today as they were then, including transportation regulation and rates; taxes; farmer income; trade; labor (both on-farm and organized); property-use rights; and water/irrigation access. In the beginning, volunteers staffed the WSFB, usually growers who worked on farm bureau business in and around their farming activities. As the organization and its coffers grew, it was able to afford a dedicated staff with fulltime representation in Olympia. In addition to its lobbying activities, the WSFB now [2021] offers insurance, human resources support, and a compensation/safety program.

In the Beginning

The nation's first local farm bureau organized in 1911 in Broome County, New York, as a way to represent farmers to the local chamber of commerce. The concept of farmers pooling their efforts quickly spread across the country and became closely aligned with county Extension agents, a program funded by Congress in the 1914 Smith-Lever Act. The first documented state farm bureau formed in Missouri in 1915. Four years later, in Chicago, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) was founded with the goal of giving farmers and ranchers "a voice and a seat at the table with the powerful economic interests of the day -- business, manufacturing, railroads and labor" ("Organizing for a Voice …").

Throughout the mid-1910s, multiple Washington state counties established local and county farm bureaus. The statewide farm bureau officially organized in 1920, with George Hayton of Chehalis elected as WSFB president at the organization's first annual meeting in Walla Walla. From the beginning, a board of directors representing the county farm bureaus provided leadership for the state organization. That board elected the WSFB president and the rest of the executive team each year. The state office remained in Walla Walla, close to where most of its members were, until 1947 when it moved to Spokane.

Membership fees collected by the local farm bureaus were divided between the local, state and national chapters. In general, the state farm bureau received $1 to $2 for each member in the counties affiliated with it, while 50 cents went to the AFBF. In 1920 newspaper clippings, several county farm bureaus were organizing membership drives with $5 to $10 set as the membership fee.

Keeping membership informed about the various activities of farm bureau leadership and the agricultural issues of the day was a priority for the WSFB. In conjunction with the Oregon and Idaho farm bureau federations, the WSFB started publishing a newsletter, the Pacific Northwest Farm Bureau News, in the mid to late 1920s, based on copies from 1940 that show them as volume No. 14 (assuming each year is a volume). By 1942, the newsletter became a Washington state-only publication with a new name, Washington State Farm Bureau News. The WSFB still publishes the newsletter as the Washington FB News, but it focuses less on agricultural news and more on farm bureau member activity. It is published twice yearly.

Although the WSFB pushed for farm bureau organizations in a majority of Washington counties from the beginning, organized farm bureau activity at the county level was primarily concentrated in just a few counties by the early 1940s. In the September 1941 issue of the Pacific Northwest Farm Bureau News, Eric E. Eastman, a graduate of Washington State College, surveyed WSFB activity and noted that "… The Farm Bureau in Washington is limited to three counties, Walla Walla, Kittitas and Columbia, with a scattered, unorganized membership in other areas of the state, which have no present record of cooperative efforts" ("Survey made …").

At the 1941 annual convention, WSFB President O. H. Woodward, in reviewing the organization's progress that year, said 1942 should see "many Farm Bureau meetings held and a definite start towards membership, leadership and program" on the west side of the state ("Progress of …"). Those efforts seemed successful, as by the end of 1942, three district farm bureau organizations had formed in Western Washington covering nearly a dozen counties. The Pacific Northwest Farm Bureau News noted this was the first time in more than a dozen years that Western Washington had been involved in farm bureau organization.

Priorities and Issues

In the first few years after organization, one of the WSFB's main priorities was increasing membership throughout the state. In 1920, the Washington Standard reported that several counties were holding membership drives with the goal of signing thousands of new members. Spokane County even went so far as to "import" Chester Gray, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, to help launch its drive.

Increasing transportation rates, especially freight rates, and transportation taxes were ongoing issues for Washington farmers, and issues that the WSFB repeatedly advocated against. In 1921, The Seattle Star reported that 40,000 carloads of apples, alfalfa, and other farm products were going to waste in the Yakima Valley because of prohibitive freight rates. In 1937, the WSFB opposed the Pettengill Bill because it would have repealed the long- and short-haul clause of the 1910 Interstate Commerce Act that stopped railroads from charging a higher rate for a short haul that was included within a larger haul.

In 1942, the WSFB "vigorously" opposed a proposal for a 5 percent tax on transportation services included in a new Federal Revenue and Taxation bill. In a telegram sent to the state's congressional members, the WSFB said the tax on a freight percentage basis would "practically destroy our market values and preclude shipments of about one-third our normal crop movement from this area" ("Farm Groups Oppose ..."). That same year, the WSFB Transportation Committee reported that they had worked on two active projects: opposing the railroads' request for a 10 percent freight rate increase (3 percent was eventually granted for agricultural products) and an emergency reduced rate application to ship wheat via railroad to the East Coast since most boats had been put to use in the war effort (this was turned down).

Another issue tackled by the WSFB was labor on the farm, especially labor shortages during World War II. While the WSFB generally supported the war effort, Washington farmers reported they were unable to pay wages comparable and competitive with war industries and military construction projects. The WSFB sent a statement in 1944 to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, among others, protesting against drafting all skilled farm hands under 26 into the armed forces.

Organized labor is also an issue tackled by the WSFB multiple times. In 1942, amid an effort by the United Mine Workers to organize dairy workers, the state organization voted to support AFBF President Edward A. O'Neal's congressional testimony regarding organized labor. O'Neal stated that while the AFBF supports organized labor "in all reasonable and legitimate efforts to improve the income of workers ... we deplore the use of violence, boycotts, lockouts, failure to recognize duly constituted governmental authority, disregard of contracts and other irresponsible acts" ("Labor Curbs ..."). In 1960, WSFB President Heber Thompson pledged that the organization would lead an all-out fight to resist efforts of labor union organizers to "take control of the state's agriculture" (Farm Group Will Fight …"). And in the 2014 slowdowns at West Coast ports that occurred during a contract dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, the WSFB lobbied Congress, pushed both sides to the negotiating table, and supported agriculture's efforts to end the slowdown.

Other positions and issues the WSFB has taken up over the years include supporting parity (a statistical model in the 1920s and 30s using prices from 1910-1914 to try to maintain a balance between farm income and farm expenses); supporting a cap on property tax rates; supporting development of Columbia River waterways; supporting land-use laws; advocating for water rights, especially for irrigators; supporting expansion of the federal rural credit system; and opposing Washington's 1990 Growth Management Act.

In 2011, WSFB also helped draft the Voluntary Stewardship Program, an alternative, incentive-based approach to help counties protect critical areas as required by the Growth Management Act while still preserving agricultural activities.

Something for Everyone

Women have been present in the farm bureau movement, especially through the Associated Women of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which was officially organized at the AFBF annual convention in December 1934. The program brought together representatives of farm women to guide the AFBF in preserving and advancing the best interests of the farm family and the farm home. The Washington state chapter, known as the Associated Rural Women of Washington, cooperated with county and state farm bureaus and encouraged participation in an annual national public speaking contest, sponsored timely lectures on educational subjects, and addressed economic and legislative issues. It organized fundraisers for various relief programs, such as a "seeds for Britain" program and the United China Relief program, both during World War II.

The women's group also held its own program at the WSFB's annual convention, with the goal of making the annual meeting a "true family gathering" ("Good Record …"). By 1955, the group was renamed the Associated Women of Washington State Farm Bureau. It is active today [2021] as the Women's Committee and works closely with the WSFB's Promotion and Education Committee.

In February 1940, WSFB President Herbert F. Clark announced the formation of the Washington Wheat Growers League as an affiliate that would be responsible for the wheat program of the WSFB. In the announcement, Clark said the league had strong membership in Kittitas County, the Palouse and in southeast Washington grain regions. Its immediate focus was to study the Agricultural Adjustment Act (legislation that provided price support for certain crops, along with marketing quotas to help keep supply in line with demand) and parity payments; support of caps on property taxes; study of highway and rail transportation; and backing of Columbia River transportation development. The league expanded to include Northern Idaho wheat farmers at the annual convention in December 1941 and renamed itself the Washington-Idaho Wheat League (WIWL).

The WIWL worked closely with the Washington State Farm Bureau for many years, holding its annual convention immediately before the WSFB's and appearing as a partner in the editorial box of the Pacific Northwest Farm Bureau News until 1955. The two organizations even shared staff. R. D. Flaherty of Walla Walla was the managing editor and business manager of the newsletter for many years and served as secretary-treasurer of the league from 1940 to 1942. By 1954, however, wheat growers contemplated striking out on their own. The WIWL officially disbanded in December 1954 "in an effort to resolve conflicts of interest," according to a Spokesman-Review article ("New Wheatgrowers' …"). Wheat growers immediately formed a new organization, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.

Building on the example of the wheat league's leadership on wheat-related issues, the WSFB set up committees to focus on other commodities and issues, including dairy (1941); field crops (1941); poultry (1942); taxation (1942); transportation (1942); new uses and livestock (1942); wildlife and game (1942); pea growers (1943); and legislative matters (1958). The commodity committee structure was maintained until recently when the WSFB transitioned to more issue-based committees instead.

While farm bureau activities were geared toward older adults, the younger members of farm families weren't forgotten. They were included through the Junior Farm Bureau program, which was for men and women between 18 and 28 who lived on a farm. The program supported and cooperated with senior farm bureaus; studied problems facing agriculture; supported cooperative enterprises; held dances, dinners and picnics; and sponsored athletics, among other activities. Work projects included 4-H leading and sponsoring; community service; and farm and home beautification. According to a Spokesman-Review article, a Junior Farm Bureau was organized in Yakima County as early as 1923. Columbia County formed a Junior Farm Bureau in 1936, and Kittitas County formed one in 1940. The Rural Youth Program, another program geared towards farm youth, started in the 1940s and is still active. Now called the Young Farmers and Ranchers program, it focuses on developing farm and community leaders, offers online courses, and recognizes participation and leadership. The WSFB offers several college scholarships to children of farm bureau members.

Insurance and Modern Times

By 1962, the WSFB relocated its office from Spokane to Ellensburg, and then to Yakima, before heading to Olympia by 1972. From 1972 on, it would remain on the west side of the state, as by that point, the organization had a dedicated staff that wasn't tied to farming and could stay close to government offices.

Besides its political activities, the farm bureau supported cooperative efforts by farmers, especially in insurance. Those efforts were alluded to as early as 1936 when Chester H. Gray, a representative of the AFBF speaking at a meeting of the Western Farm Bureau Federation, said, "Farmers have cooperated on tornado, fire, lightning, life and automobile insurance ..." ("Co-Op Insurance ..."). John Stuhlmiller, current [2021] CEO of the WSFB, surmised that was because in the early days of insurance, there were very few options, and somebody had to take the risk of insuring farmers.

Several of the largest insurance companies in the U.S. were started by farmers pooling their resources, including State Farm, Nationwide, and Country Financial. In 1951, the Washington State Farm Bureau organized the Washington Farm Mutual Insurance Company for general casualty insurance, and in 1954, it organized the Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company to sell fire insurance. At some point thereafter, the WSFB joined with the Oregon and Nevada farm bureaus to form the Northwest Farm Bureau Insurance Company.

Country Financial purchased the Northwest Farm Bureau Insurance Company in 1986, and the WSFB began endorsing Country Financial's products. That move saw the WSFB's membership begin to climb from 3,500 members in the 1970s as more people became "associate" members of the farm bureau, that is, nonvoting, nonfarming members who participated only in the insurance aspects of the organization. That increase in membership dues also allowed the WSFB to hire dedicated, fulltime staff to represent farmers.

In addition to personal insurance, the WSFB developed other programs to help farmers, including one in partnership with the state that gives farmers an opportunity to get reduced industrial insurance rates. There's also a Labor and Industries (L&I) worker safety and claim management program that includes safety training, safety program development, L&I inspection preparation, claims management, and member education. One of the WSFB's newer offerings is human resources support to help small farm businesses understand how to comply with labor laws and manage their workforce.

As part of its lobbying efforts, the WSFB established the Washington Farm Bureau Legal Foundation in 2010 as a way to "defend issues that are significant to the state," Stuhlmiller said. Some of the issues the legal foundation has been or is involved in are repeal of the federal Waters of the U.S. legislation; Washington state fish consumption standards; court cases ordering Washington state to redesign and rebuild road culverts to allow salmon to swim upstream; and the 2020 State Supreme Court decision that dairy workers are not exempt from ag overtime laws.

Although it looks quite different 100 years on, the Washington State Farm Bureau is still, at its core, a grower-led organization working to make sure Washington's farmers and ranchers have a voice in state and federal government. In 2021, the organization represented 25 county farm bureau organizations covering every county in the state with nearly 46,000 total members.

As R. C. Pollock, a field organizer for the AFBF, said at a 1921 meeting of the Washington State Farm Bureau, "The fundamental principle of the farm bureau work is that it proposes to cooperate with the great agencies of government in working out a solution for the farmers' present difficulty ... It is our problem as farmers, however, to work out our own salvation intelligently, patiently and patriotically" ("Washington State Farm Bureau ...").


Author interviews with John Stuhlmiller, CEO Washington State Farm Bureau, November 24, 2020 and January 5, 2021, notes in possession of Trista Crossley; "WFB Centennial Final Narrative," provided by the Washington State Farm Bureau; "Organizing for a Voice and a Seat at the Table," American Farm Bureau Federation website accessed December 26, 2020 (fb.org); "Kittitas Junior Farm Bureau Is Important In Life Of Youth," Pacific Northwest Farm Bureau News, August 1940, p. A-5; "Good Record of Walla Walla County Women's Group is Cited," Ibid., October 1940, p. A-3; "Farm Bureau President Discusses League," Ibid., October 1940, p. A-1; Eric E. Eastman, "Survey Made, Washington Farm Bureau," Ibid., September 1941, p. A-3; "Wheat League is Expanded," Ibid., December 1941, p. A-1; O. H. Woodward, "Progress of Farm Bureau Steady During Past Year," Ibid., December 1941, p. B-1; "Northwest District Forms Farm Bureau Organization," Ibid., April 1942, p. A-1; "Labor Curbs are Approved by Directors," Ibid., May 1942, p. A-1, 6; "Western Farm Bureaus Agree as to Policies," Ibid., July 1942, p. A-1; "Farm Groups Oppose Tax on Transportation," Ibid., September 1942, p. A-1; "Transportation Matters Told," Ibid., December 1942, p. A-8; "State's Farm Groups Against Drafting All Young Workers," Ibid., May 1944, p. A-2; "President Hayton Expresses Confidence," The Washington Standard, October 12, 1920, p. 1; "State Farm Bureau Decides on Drive," Ibid., November 2, 1920, p. 1; "Talk State Farm Bureau," The Spokesman-Review, February 14, 1920, p. 5; "Washington State Farm Bureau Gives Ovation to its National Head," Ibid., March 23, 1921, p. 6; "Form Junior Farm Bureau," Ibid., March 12, 1923, p. 5; "Co-Op Insurance on Crops Urged," Ibid., June 27, 1936, p. 3; "Farm Group Hits Pettengill Bill," Ibid., June 25, 1937, p. 20; "Junior Farm Bureau Formed," Ibid., March 16, 1939, p. 23; "Farmers Form Wheat League," Ibid., February 12, 1940, p. 24; "New Wheatgrowers' Group Formed Ending Long Battle," Ibid., December 4, 1954, p. 6; "Farm Group Will Fight Union Move," Ibid., August 18, 1960, p. 5; "High Rates Ruin State Farm Crops," Seattle Star, October 12, 1921, p. 14 (https://washingtondigitalnewspapers.org/?a=d&d=SEATSTAR19211012.1.14&srpos=117&e=------192-en-20-SEATSTAR-101-byDA.rev-txt-txIN-high+rates----1921--); "Mutual Concern Papers are Filed," Spokane Chronicle, March 30, 1954, p. 3.

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