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  • Farmers Helping Farmers: The Rise of the Farm and Home Bureaus, 1914–1935 by Nancy K. Berlage
  • Drew Swanson (bio)
Farmers Helping Farmers: The Rise of the Farm and Home Bureaus, 1914–1935. By Nancy K. Berlage. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2016. Pp. 328. Hardcover $48.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, a political and economic organization, seems the epitome of modern agribusiness, with its slick website and print publications, membership of large-scale farmers, and lobbying influence in Washington, D.C. Nancy K. Berlage reveals, however, that in their early years the Farm Bureau and allied Home Bureau were hardly top-down organizations. Instead, she parses how the bureaus emerged from the complex interface of public and private rural initiatives of the early twentieth century and were birthed by the genuine interests and concerns of farm men and women. These bureaus became mechanisms through which "rural people expressed their own needs, turning to knowledge and scientific logic to support their aims," and should be understood as grassroots initiatives (p. 228).

Berlage's first two chapters describe the origins of the early Farm Bureau chapters in the 1910s. These began locally, emerging first on the county level in regions with strong agricultural modernization efforts, such as Illinois and New York. Their main goals were to support the growing efforts of government farm extension work. Bureau efforts blended private and public initiatives through such activities as operating seed and sales cooperatives, selling insurance, and supporting federal soil science studies. Farm Bureaus imagined themselves as allies of government agricultural science and opponents of the lobbying power of big business and organized labor. Chapter three outlines the complex nature of Bureau operations through a case study: the effort to eradicate bovine tuberculosis. This [End Page 978] campaign included Bureau educational drives to generate farmer support, pressure to professionalize veterinary science, and cooperative dairy organization to capitalize on the investment in eradication.

The fourth chapter turns to Home Bureaus. Akin in conception to the Farm Bureau movement, Home Bureaus organized rural women around the science and management of the home and domestic production. These organizations—amorphously connected rather than officially affiliated with the Farm Bureau—worked to professionalize certain emerging disciplines and define them as women's "spheres," for example, nutrition, sanitation, and efficiency studies. Berlage next takes a more overarching look at women's involvement in the Farm Bureaus themselves, defining their work as "integrationist," as the Farm Bureau did not formally gender labor in many cases (p. 124). These activities had the potential to unify rural men and women, as "Bureau women pressed their claims to joint ownership of the farm bureau as members of the agricultural occupation who had not only economic interests at stake but specialized knowledge and expertise in agricultural matters" (p. 180). In a sixth and final chapter, she examines the Farm Bureau's support of various youth clubs intended to sustain the vitality of rural life across the generations. These clubs' emphasis on competition and travel was often a double-edged sword: it could stimulate youth interest in modern farming, but also exposed them to urban life and universities, which tempted some to leave the farm for good.

In some respects, the book feels like two projects welded together. The early chapters exploring the origins and development of the bureaus fill a historiographical gap and do so in business history form. Later chapters emphasizing the vital role of women in rural organizations are needed and refreshing—in some respects, they form the most innovative section of the book—yet they also shift the narrative away from the earlier chapters' focus on the aims and initiatives of the bureaus. In the introduction, Berlage is upfront about these disparate aims, but they might be more seam-lessly integrated.

Farmers Helping Farmers is grounded in extensive and impressive primary research in bureau records, member correspondence, agricultural college papers, and periodicals, with the bulk of the material coming from Illinois, Iowa, and New York, Berlage's three example states. Overall, the book is clearly written and persuasive, and should be of great interest to historians of agriculture and science. Berlage convincingly demonstrates the complex and populist origins of two of...


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