Tom Giessel in front of a hill of sorghum.

By Tom Giessel, NFU Historian

Owen Franklin Dornblazer was the 11th person to join The Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union of America in 1902. He lived to the age of 94 and was active in organizational and membership work until the final few months of his life. At age 85, addressing the 1926 NFU convention, he said, “There was nothing for those who began it, only the future.” I believe that statement still rings true today.

So, what about our future? Over the years, farmers and ranchers have struggled with tough times, but today’s free-fall of the rural economy is unprecedented. Commodity prices, as a percentage of parity, are at an all-time low. No, this is not the first farm crisis, but the debt spiral is spinning faster than a Kansas tornado. Yes, there are economic models that can produce grain, livestock, fruits, vegetables and milk at a very low economic cost. But can those prices support a family, a rural economy or a community? No. We are in the throes of an economic system which exploits, extracts and steals not only the wealth of the land, but the dignity of the human being.

Charles Barrett, circa 1905.

Now, as in the past, the question before us is, “How do we right the ship?” At its core, the answer is the same as it was in 1906 when James West, the president of the Indiahoma Farmers Union said, “Let the words be: Agitate, Organize, Educate and Cooperate.” The core belief in the power of organization has served as a touchstone throughout Farmers Union’s history. Charles Barrett, who served as the president of National Farmers Union from 1906-1928, had an innate understanding of this. He spoke and wrote eloquently on the topic. Here is an excerpt from one of those masterpieces:

I am going to give you my solution for your agricultural problems. But since these truths are bearded with age, a few will recognize their value. The key to the solution of nearly every farm problem lies in self-help. What does that mean? It means first; cooperative organization for protective and educational purposes; second, cooperative organization for business purposes, and third, cooperative organization for political purposes. 

We must begin with cooperative organization for our own protection. That kind of organization must have roots in the local community. The communities, through their locals must have a strong state-wide union; the states must have a strong, effective national union. You have such an organization in the Farmers Union. Our organization has weathered twenty-two years of storms. It has been in the midst of the fight when the fight was the hardest.

Farmers Union has a deep and rich heritage. We have created communities through the spirit of cooperation. We have embraced and promoted education for all people. We have worked at the local, state, national and international levels developing cooperative enterprises and legislation. We must continue to strive to create opportunity for everyone, and empower others to create communities. Let us draw strength, hope, and energy from the times and trials of our organization’s 115-year history, as we move forward to our future.

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