Congratulations to Iowa Farm Bureau. Iowa’s largest grassroots farm organization is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. Theme for the milestone annual meeting in early December in Des Moines was “A Century Strong.” IFBF has a membership of 156,851 families; about 15% of Iowa’s households. The organization has come a long way since it was founded Dec. 27, 1918, at Marshalltown.
Before the 2018 annual meeting, I interviewed IFBF President Craig Hill, a Warren County farmer, at the headquarters in West Des Moines. Laurie Johns and Andrew Wheeler of IFBF’s public relations department were also on hand to answer my questions.
In Iowa, Farm Bureau’s roots date back to 1912, when the first four county Farm Bureaus were formed: Clinton, Muscatine, Black Hawk and Scott counties. They were formed largely because those counties were seeking an Iowa State University Extension director.
Back then ISU was known as Iowa State College. Farmers came together in those counties to raise money to hire a director and establish an Extension program, to provide education and information about better farming practices. Those first county organizations were called Crop Improvement Associations or Farmers for Better Living; they had different names, not Farm Bureau. They got their start as people gathering together, working for the improvement and advancement of their farms and communities.
From four counties in 1912, more were added, reaching a total of 51 counties in 1918. By then they were known as Farm Bureau in each county. Soon every county in Iowa had organized a Farm Bureau, which is how it remains today. Iowa has 100 county Farm Bureaus. The statewide Iowa Farm Bureau was federated in 1918 in Marshalltown and the first state president was John R. Howard.
A foundation of leadership
“The establishment of Farm Bureau was a grassroots movement,” Hill says. “We were organized, advanced and approved by farmers and others with a goal of improving agriculture and life in rural communities. Iowa was a model for the American Farm Bureau, which was formed in 1920. We already had 100,000 members when Iowa joined AFBF.”
Just as Farm Bureau does today, Howard, a Marshall County farmer, wanted to provide educational programs so farmers could improve their farms, lives, health and financial situations. He wanted to build a strong membership.
“The first leaders back then believed strongly those efforts should be farmer-led,” Hill says. “They wanted Farm Bureau to be inclusive of all farmers, all agriculturists, livestock and crop producers, whatever diverse interests, membership was open to everyone.”
Howard once said, “The future of Iowa is as bright as the future of farming.” He knew for farmers to have a united voice on issues — local, state, national — they needed to organize. They needed a united voice to negotiate with government and advocate for policy. In 1920, Iowa helped lead the formation of AFBF, and Howard was elected the first AFBF president.
Vision and legacy lives on
A few years later, in 1922, a group of 11 farm women from different areas of the state met in Des Moines and developed a plan for involving women in Farm Bureau more effectively. The IFBF women’s committee worked to improve the quality of education in rural schools and town libraries, promoted nutrition and helped lead Ag in the Classroom and other activities.
Iowa’s Ruth Buxton Sayre was one of the earliest Farm Bureau leaders. She helped found the women’s division of IFBF in the 1920s. Traveling farm to farm in her Model T Ford, she built support for Farm Bureau and for women’s programs.
Sayre later advanced into national and international leadership roles as chair of both the Associated Women of the American Farm Bureau and Associated Country Women of the World, a global organization that still exists today.
Sayre also served on President Dwight Eisenhower’s Farm Advisory Committee. Her passion for farming and support for farm women always showed through. As she said at the time of her state election, it is only by working together for their mutual interests that farm families “can have any hope of solving problems of their farm home, whether they are economic, educational or cultural.”
Another person Hill talked about was the late Dean Kleckner, whom I interviewed several times over the years. From 1986 to 2000, Kleckner was president of IFBF and then AFBF, and worked hard to build export markets and support farmers’ incomes. Growing up in Floyd County, he had a plain-speaking manner, a sense of humor and great listening skills, which helped him build strong relationships everywhere he went.
In all, Kleckner traveled to more than 80 countries, meeting foreign leaders, ag ministers and many others to help pry open the doors for additional sales of grain and meat for farmers in Iowa and the U.S. His vision for the future of U.S. agriculture stretched far and wide around the globe. All of Iowa agriculture is much better off because of him.
Growing Iowa’s communities
Today, it’s certainly not your grandpa’s Iowa Farm Bureau. IFBF offers modern programs and services for members that enhance the economic vitality of farming and communities. The Renew Rural Iowa Program, launched more than a decade ago, has helped generate over $125 million in economic impact for rural communities. IFBF is also a strong supporter of entrepreneur programs to help create enterprise and jobs in rural areas.
Renew Rural Iowa, launched in 2007, works to increase the vitality of new and existing businesses in rural Iowa through a program of business education, mentoring and financial resources to help businesses grow. It brings together experts and resources at each seminar, allowing business owners to tap into a wide array of services and one-on-one assistance.
Both IFBF and AFBF have programs supporting ag entrepreneurs focused on solving food and agricultural challenges. This year Iowa has three members in the top 10 finalists for AFBF’s national Ag Innovation Challenge. They were mentored by IFBF’s Renew Rural Iowa, which helps Iowans take their ideas from the drawing board to the boardroom.
“Those who work in agriculture are natural problem-solvers,” Hill says. “But to be able to take a problem and put it to paper to create a business out of it to help others is something special and part of what makes an Iowan an Iowan: the desire to help others. These programs help take those innovative ideas and put them to work.”
Next 100 years
Other IFBF efforts helping prepare Iowa for tomorrow include the Young Farmer Program, which has 600 attendees at its statewide annual meeting and includes breakout sessions and presentations of use to young farmers. Another popular program is Take Root, offering meetings and information as well as one-on-one help with succession planning and transfer of farms from one generation to the next.
“Agriculture and Iowa have changed immensely in the last 100 years,” Hill says. “Horse-drawn plows and other equipment have been replaced by satellite-guided tractors and drones. Science has revolutionized farming while using fewer resources and improving our ability to care for land and water. Improved transportation and communications technology has brought our once-remote rural Iowa communities into the heart of the world.
“Yet, despite these advances, some things remain the same. With grassroots focus, Farm Bureau will continue to remain a vital part of Iowa into the next century and beyond.”
For information about these and other programs, visit iowafarmbureau.com/100.