- “Farmers Helping Farmers”: The Rise of the Farm and Home Bureaus, 1914–1935 by Nancy K. Berlage
In recent decades, the amount of research on American farm organizations has been minimal. This has surely been linked to the ever-dwindling influence of farmers and agrarian ideologies in American life. If the United States was “born in the country,” as Richard Hofstadter aptly noted, it has now mostly moved to the suburbs.
But now comes Nancy Berlage, who offers a deep consideration of the origins and development of farm bureaus in American life. Berlage situates the story of the American farm bureaus within the now half-century-old framework of the “organizational synthesis.” Pioneered by historians such as Louis Galambos, Ellis Hawley, and Thomas McGraw, the organizational synthesis stresses the importance of the rise of professional organizations, science, technology, [End Page 92] and functional interest groups during the early twentieth century. Berlage argues that to date the organizational synthesis has been applied mostly to big business and the expansion of the federal state during this era, but she seeks to extend its reach to the farm sector. This is a worthy and admirable goal, but it should be noted that Hawley students such as David Hamilton and Kim Porter and scholars such as Tom Hall have also written about the agricultural sector and the organizational synthesis.
As Berlage explains, farm bureaus were a product of the early twentieth century’s preoccupation with science and progressivism and government efforts to prod rural Americans toward reform. Building on earlier and weaker efforts of the central state to improve rural life by creating the federal Department of Agriculture and land grant colleges, President Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission gave additional energy to rural reform. In keeping with the goals of county extension agents, who were brought to life by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, rural Americans organized local farm bureaus as a method of presenting information about improving rural life to local farmers. Berlage focuses, for example, on the work of Henry Parke of Illinois, who studied scientific methods of improving agriculture and promoted new marketing techniques and then promoted them on his own farm in DeKalb County, where he became known as the “Father of the Farm Bureau.”
More than previous historians, Berlage sees the farm bureaus as more democratic and more interested in improving the basic lives of farmers. She rejects, for example, the line of thinking that undergirds Grant McConnell’s rather conspiracy-oriented The Decline of Agrarian Democracy (1959). The farm bureau network, she argues, was “an authentic grassroots movement with community based organizations, despite latter claims to the contrary” (23). The movement included many farmers of modest means and because of the broad membership of farm bureaus, it was simply “too large an organization to be dominated only by elite, commercial farmers, as some maintain” (24).
Berlage also indicates that too much has been made about whether farmers are “capitalistic” or not and seems to reject the work of some historians in recent decades who have drawn a sharp line between a traditional premodern era of agriculture and a modern “capitalist” era. She sees an easy combination of both modes of life in farmers involved in the farm bureaus of the early twentieth century. Farmers could maintain rural folkways and traditions and family arrangements while also embracing new methods of planting, raising livestock, and marketing.
Berlage is very persuasive in all her arguments and her work is a strong [End Page 93] breath of fresh air blowing through some rather stale and musty old debates. Her personal history growing up in rural Illinois has undoubtedly contributed to her deep understanding of her subject.