Earl Smith: Farmers' Boss



NO MATTER what others may think of Earl Smith, the farmers of Illinois, in 1943, thought of him as the kind of man who would like a grandfather clock. His big, spaniel eyes glistening with emotion, he stood on the platform at the convention of the Illinois Agricultural Association and accepted the clock as a gift from the membership. He also listened to an extravagant appreciation of his services as president of the Association and as spokesman for the men the Chicago Daily News once described as the “ American kulaks.”

A labor leader told me that Earl Smith is the man most fitted by temperament and ability to become the John L. Lewis of American agriculture. (This labor leader was no admirer of John L. Lewis, I should add.) James Patton, president of the rival Farmers’ Union, described Smith as the Farm Bureau’s “one-man brain trust.” Wesley McCune in The Farm Bloc said Smith was, “by profession, a big operator” — and in the dangerous game of tabloid characterization, that comes close to being a masterpiece.

Earl Smith is important to us all, not because of what people think of him, but because he personifies many of the corn-belt farmer’s ideas about himself as a farm organization man. Farm organizations have had a hard time growing up through the brambles of individualism and isolation. Earl Smith has cultivated the Illinois Agricultural Association into the richest and most powerful state farm organization in the country’s history.

In some ways Earl Smith is the Illinois Agricultural Association. No matter what Illinois farmers think about who sits in the White House, they have enthusiastically re-elected Earl Smith to office since 1926. They believe in his leadership. Despite frequent appeals from the platform for delegates to express their thoughts, and though a dozen controversies must have been boiling in their minds, they sat for the most part silently during their 1943 meeting.

Smith believes in leadership. “I only asked for help once,” I heard him tell a McLean County audience. “ In the depression I asked you farmers to wire your Senators in favor of 50-cent wheat. You would not do it. I have never called on you since. When you don’t like what I do in your behalf, you can replace me.”

His listeners in Chicago to a man did not like the OPA — yet they heard him in silence when he said price control could not be discarded. Many must have retained their isolationist views; yet they heard without protest his strong appeal for international cooperation after the war. Many who heard him must have been typical of the low-tax rural point of view; yet they heard him plead for more money for country schools. This was leadership in action. On each point he was ahead of his followers.

He does not command their loyalty with platform tricks or oratory. He has no personal showmanship, he still owns his farm in Pike County, and farm language saturates his talk.

Smith is big, slow-moving, well-tailored, impressive. He speaks forcefully and with sincerity. He is a good businessman and thinks of himself as a businessman. He is the business ideal of corn-belt agriculture come to life and farmers love it in him. “He could get a job with any corporation in the country,” they like to boast, and one gets the impression that this is very high praise indeed. He believes profit is the sole necessary attribute of successful agriculture. “Of efforts to help the poor farmer he generally disapproves,”said an article in the June, 1944, issue of Fortune in a reference to Smith. And he does concentrate his efforts on making the big commercial farmers bigger and more commercial, believing that this is the way to help all agriculture— including the poor farmers.

To help the successful farmer become more successful in terms of money profit, Smith believes in two things: political pressure and coöperatives. The benefits of the coöperatives and the service departments of the Illinois Agricultural Association range from cholera serum to life insurance. At present writing the coöperatives have $30,000,000 in assets and paid $2,000,000 to members in 1943. And Smith is considering plans for expansion after the war, including cooperative packing plants scattered over the farm areas.

In 1943 he achieved a long-sought goal of 100,000 members, collecting $15 a year from each in dues. This $1,500,000 income is the envy of every other farm leader in the country, some of whom must be satisfied with dues of 50 cents a year.

In a quick answer, I believe Earl Smith would say that the price of corn is the most important economic fact in the country. So he found it logical to oppose the sale of wheat below parity prices early in the war because of what it might do to corn.

In August, 1943, when wartime food prices were at full flood and farm income was at unprecedented high figures, there was a short-lived and minor dip in some prices. The official magazine of the Illinois Agricultural Association roundly denounced the “severe financial reverses” and the “crumbling prices” harassing farmers. To keep price increases an attractive issue in a period of general rural prosperity, the plan was to reiterate that someone else — usually union labor — was getting even more.

For twelve years Earl Smith has been the undisputed spokesman for the three “I” states which comprise the corn belt’s center of gravity—Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. He has taken the two neighboring state Farm Bureaus with him on every important issue in Washington. In recognition of his corn-belt leadership, he is vice-president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and chairman of its resolutions committee. And on at least one occasion both the Republican and the Democratic Senator from Illinois called Earl Smith before voting on an important farm measure.


EARL SMITH illustrates a good deal about the cornbelt farmer as a joiner, but not the whole story. It is necessary to know what the farmer joins as well as whom he follows.

On the western fringe of the corn belt the Farmers’ Union is strong, and in Ohio the Grange is active. But in most of the corn-belt states the undisputed leader in farm organizations is the Farm Bureau. So the corn-belt farmer joins the Farm Bureau. It sounds simple enough. But it is not.

When I came to McLean County in 1935, I thought I knew what the Farm Bureau was. After asking a few questions, I was not so sure. I made it a hobby to try to find out by asking farmers. Some said it was a government agency to which they contributed $15 a year. Others said it was a private organization which cost $15 a year to join. Some said it was for the purpose of educating farmers in scientific agriculture. Others said it was for getting laws passed in Springfield and Washington. Over In Iowa about this time, Milo Reno was calling it the tool of international bankers. Since then I have often heard it described by rival farm organizations and by liberal friends of the New Deal as the illegitimate child of big business. It is also attacked as the exclusive voice of the big farmer.

In town, businessmen often say it is a “coöp racket” sustained and unfairly promoted with public funds. I talked with one of these recently. He is a paint dealer and a member of the draft board in a neighboring county. He was asked to speak to a meeting of his county’s Farm Bureau about draft rules. He came at the request of the farm adviser, who was acting as an employee of the Department of Agriculture Extension Service. But before he made his talk, he had to listen to an appeal to the farmers in attendance to buy Farm Bureau paint from their coöperative. He asked me whether this was what he was paying his taxes for.

Behind the confusion is a simple beginning as a government-sponsored educational program for farmers. As the frontier was pushing west, farmers left behind on run-down soil became interested in increasing yields in order to compete with the fresh land. In 1862 the Land-Grant College Act became law and state-operated agricultural colleges began to organize scientific knowledge in t he farmer’s behalf. Classroom work, however, was not enough to satisfy farmers. In 1868 Kansas Stale Agricultural College became the first to take “correct agricultural principles” directly to the farmers by means of traveling lecturers. Illinois took a different method the next year, inviting farmers to the campus for a two-week series of lectures and discussions. This was the birth of the “farmers’ institute” which was to grow into the Extension Service method of teaching farmers.

The idea of hiring a county agricultural agent to serve farmers as a full-time teacher and demonstrator began to take hold about 1910. The money came first from private sources, often business organizations. The first, county unit, to be given the name Farm Bureau was started in 1911 as an offshoot of the Binghamton, New York, Chamber of Commerce. By 1914 the county movement had become so strong that the Smith-Lever Act was passed, supplying Federal funds to pay half the costs of the county agent as a teacher employed by the Extension Service. The act provides for coöperative administration by the United States Department of Agriculture and the state agricultural colleges and describes extension teaching as “the giving of instruction and practical demonstrations in agriculture and home economics to persons not attending or resident in said colleges . . . and imparting to such persons information on said subjects through field demonstrations, publications, and otherwise. . . .” This is still the legal basis of county agent work.

The alliance between the Extension Service and the Farm Bureau came about naturally enough. Many county Farm Bureaus were already doing educational work when the Smith-Lever Act was passed. They were a natural means of carrying on education under the new Federal-state system.

In those days of innocence regarding farm lobbies and organizational jealousies, there was an open and unabashed union of the Extension Service and the county Farm Bureaus.

“The county agent has been the John the Baptist of the Farm Bureau movement,” an Extension Service official said. “The agents have done many things to commend themselves to public esteem, but nothing probably greater than the unselfish devotion they have given to their brother, the county Farm Bureau.” The feeling was reciprocated. “The county agent is the keystone of the [American Farm Bureau] Federation,” its president said in 1921.

From that time on the story is no longer a simple one; 1921 was about the last time such sentiments could be expressed without drawing angry accusations from other national farm organizations. The complications began when the county Farm Bureaus — still strictly educational — formed state Farm Bureaus. In Illinois the state organization was called the Illinois Agricultural Association, though elsewhere it is simply called the state Farm Bureau.

The Illinois Agricultural Association and the other state Farm Bureaus in varying degree wore interested from the beginning in more than education. They made lobbying and coöperatives their chief activities, thus preparing the way for the “big operator” type of leadership Earl Smith typifies.

By 1919 the state organizations had met and formed the American Farm Bureau Federation to lobby on a national scale. The government-sponsored adult education program at the county level had grown into what is now conceded to be the most powerful private lobby in the country.


WHEN Henry Cantwell Wallace was Secretary of Agriculture he saw the direction the Farm Bureaus had taken. He set up administrative rules in 1922 trying to separate the county agent’s duties from the strictly organization jobs the ambitious Farm Bureau promoters thrust on him. Wallace reminded the agents that they were “public teachers” and not membership salesmen, managers of coöperatives, or editors of Farm Bureau publications. Some of the state Extension directors, disturbed by the trend, refused to work with the Farm Bureau in its new character. But most continued to coöperate, in the belief that it was the best means of reaching the farmer with educational material. They were probably right.

So in Illinois today and in some of the other states where there is a connection between the Farm Bureau and the Extension Service, this “public teacher” finds his time taken up largely by Farm Bureau members and with Farm Bureau projects. In Illinois the county agents are hired by the county Farm Bureaus from a list of applicants approved by the Extension Service. They are paid partly from private Farm Bureau funds and partly from state and Federal funds.

If the agents are not supposed to promote membership, they nevertheless attend the state membership rallies. If they are “public teachers,” they also are exposed to the lobby line of the official Farm Bureau Federation at an annual meeting so private that newspapermen are not invited.

This double function — part teacher and part private organization employee — puts them in many awkward situations. For example, as Extension employees they were charged with explaining the wartime dairy subsidy to farmers. But as Farm Bureau employees they were working for an organization which bitterly opposed the subsidy.

In 1930 a study revealed that in nineteen states the public did not recognize any difference between the term “farm bureau” and the term “extension work.” To cap the confusion, making it complete from bottom to top, the national director of the Extension Service is, ex officio, a member of the American Farm Bureau Federation board of directors — a fact which sends the rival farm organizations into fits of temper whenever they think of it.

Though the Grange never meets in national convention without passing resolutions in opposition, it has been the Farmers’ Union which has most actively fought the Extension Service-Farm Bureau alliance. It has published information showing that in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, New York, and California the Extension Service has used the franking privilege of a government agency to call meetings of the Farm Bureau, which the Union sees only as a rival organization. The Union caught the Nebraska Farm Bureau in a particularly virulent attack on the war food program at a time when the Extension Service in that state was pushing a Farm Bureau membership campaign at $10 per member. In the words of the National Union Farmer: “1 — Extension gets money from the U. S. Treasury. 2 — Extension builds a Farm Bureau. 3 — Farm Bureau kicks the U. S. program in the beak.”

There is practically unlimited state autonomy in administering the Extension Service. Policies vary widely. Some state Extension directors guard carefully against mixing in the private affairs of the Farm Bureau. But none can escape the embarrassment which falls on this public educational agency when their ally in twenty-nine states also functions as a private lobby.


IN THE McLean County Farm Bureau office, the furniture is smartly steel and the stenographers are smoothly handsome. The Farm Bureau building is of modernistic design complete with a curved wall, glass brick, and chairs with steel runners instead of legs. On the table around which farmers and businessmen sit awaiting appointments are Business Week, the Kiplinger Washington letter, and some of the higher-toned agricultural magazines.

It is the biggest county Farm Bureau in the corn belt and the biggest in the country except for a few counties near large cities and one in the South where the plantation owners write all their sharecroppers down as members and pay the membership fee themselves.

There are about 2900 members in McLean County, of which fewer than 200, I am told, are business or professional men. This leaves some 1200 farmers, or about one third of those in the county, who do not belong. Asa B. Culp, who makes his living selling memberships, explained who the non-joiners are. They are the Amish sect, some of the hill farmers in the poor northwest corner of the county, some farmers who just ride along getting the benefits of legislation without paying their $15, and a few individualists. Mr. Culp, so far as I know, does not swear—the way he spits out “individualist,” he does not have to.

A strong selling point for memberships is that the rebates and the savings from the coöperatives will return the $15 fee, but Mr. Culp says he prefers a higher plane. He sells farmers on the importance of banding together for the good of farming, but he is ready to show that joining is good business, too.

This banding together for the good of agriculture is the crux of the criticism most often directed against the Farm Bureau. Does it attract only the big farmer and give only the big farmer a voice? And are the big farmers among the “authentic Bourbons” of our time?

“For what avail the plough or sail, Or land or life, if freedom fail?” asked Emerson. It might well be asked of agriculture in America if the Farm Bureau were determined to put the interests of a reactionary, class-conscious band of commercial farmers ahead of everything else. It would be powerful enough to wreck what it could not control. Not only food but freedom would literally be at stake.

It seems to me there are some serious weaknesses in the way farm organizations conduct their affairs. But I do not think that the Farm Bureau — in the corn belt, at least — follows a reactionary class line. My reason is that there are no rigid class differences in corn-belt agriculture.

I know about the poor farmers in the northwest corner of the county. I know they do not join the Farm Bureau because in ordinary times $15 is too much. I also know they do not feel like driving down to Bloomington to talk to the farm adviser in his modernistic office. The farmers who need help the most do not get across the barrier of that $15 and the feeling that they do not belong. To this extent, the system needs reform.

But do not assume from this that McLean County farming is separated into two classes, the big and the little, the prosperous and the poor, the successful and the failures, the Farm Bureau members and the non-members. Corn-belt farming is not a series of shelves with a class of poor stuffed into the lowest and a class of aristocrats living in ease at the top. Corn-belt agriculture is still the economic ladder it has always been; not so easily climbed as in the past, but still a ladder.

I saw a stranger on the street — a foreigner to McLean County eyes. His shoulders were rounded. His head hung forward from a long, thin neck, and his self-conscious grin showed black stumps for teeth. He was plainly up from the Ozarks to put his foot on the bottom rung of corn-belt agriculture as a hired laborer. Perhaps he will never go any higher. But thousands do take the next step into tenancy. At the top, for the skillful, — and sometimes the lucky, — there is ownership.

Are you thinking it doesn’t happen that way in America any more? From 1939 through 1943 the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company sold 7427 farms it acquired by foreclosure during the depression; 3873 of them were sold to tenant farmers. The change from laborer to tenant and from tenant to owner happens thousands of times every year in the corn belt, except in the most violent depression.

The Farm Bureaus of the corn belt speak for owners and successful tenants who are always making room for recruits from below. There is no scheming in the name of big corporations, as in the California fruit industry. There is no such political tie in here as in the South. What is done in the corn belt is done in the interests of a type of farming, not a rigid social or economic class.

The Farm Bureau and the Grange, where it is active in the corn belt, are conservative in economics and politics. But on the eastern fringe Murray Lincoln leads the energetic Ohio State Farm Bureau, a maverick among the state organizations and a liberal force in many national issues. On the western fringe is the Farmers’ Union, another gadfly to the conservative farm lobby in Washington. Corn-belt farming still is healthy with challenge and dispute.

Urban liberals who become alarmed over the social structure of corn-belt agriculture forget that there is a difference between democratic conservatives and class-conscious reactionaries. The doctrinaires of the left will not make this distinction and they have influenced urban thinkers everywhere. But corn-belt farming in the great essentials is still classless.

When the Farm Bureau speaks it is, however, in the voice of successful farmers rather than the unsuccessful; if it is not a caste which speaks, it is at least a group of big, commercial farmers. But do not think that when Earl Smith calls the Farm Bureau directors together for a meeting he rubs his hands in anticipation and says, “How can we ruin some small farmers today? ” The critics of the Farm Bureau who would have the country believe any such thing are wrong.


THIS IS how the “big versus little” situation came about. The Farm Bureau stresses the commercial aspects of farming — the selling of produce, the buying of supplies, and the fixing of prices by political action. Therefore it is of more use to the big producer than to the small producer. The bigger the farmer, the more he benefits; the smaller the farmer, the less he benefits. At the $15 a year Illinois fee there is a point where a membership becomes sheer luxury to the poorest, least commercial farmers. They remain outside and the Farm Bureau program continues to coincide with the interests of the efficient and the successful. To this extent it is not the voice of agriculture as a whole. There might be things good for agriculture which the Farm Bureau would overlook—for example, rehabilitation among the unskillful and the unfortunate.

I do not mean that members of the Farm Bureau are callous to the troubles of the poor. Many seek every way to help those who need it. They simply do not consider the Farm Bureau to be a welfare agency. They would as soon expect United States Steel to go into welfare work. The Farm Bureau is “business.”

I do not know what can be done about this limitation of the Farm Bureau program except to urge more farmers to join, thus taking the membership down into the lower economic brackets. Less than 15 per cent of poor farmers now belong to any organization, a Fortune poll disclosed, so the Farm Bureau is not alone in its attraction to the successful. The Farmers’ Union, widely hailed as the spokesman for the poor farmer, has just about the same ratio of poor and well-to-do farmers as the Farm Bureau, according to the findings of Fortune.

The leadership of the successful is as natural in farming as it is in any other endeavor. I sometimes wonder if persons who are critical of farm organizations in this respect ever tried to organize a group for any serious purpose. Call teachers, or writers, or cooks together for self-improvement. To the first meeting come the most ambitious and, quite generally, the most able. They establish the program and the others follow. It is that way in farming.

The leadership of the successful has its weaknesses. It tends to direct farm policy toward preserving the status quo instead of shifting to meet new conditions. The already successful make the rules, and naturally they are rules to preserve the makers’ own particular brand of success. Another weakness is overattention to the short-run commercial advantage, to the next season’s price, or to jockeying for some commodity advantage. Concentrating as they do on the commercial aspects of farming, they are relatively uninterested in such things as land care, tenancy, and the condition of life among the poor farmers.

These are the weaknesses of the Farm Bureau and of farm leaders like Earl Smith. His ability as an organizer, his businesslike direction of the cooperatives, his able political fight for parity prices, all have achieved positive good for corn-belt farming. Cut they have not prepared him to see an issue like that surrounding the Farm Security Administration except through the eyes of the already successful upper-income farmers.


THE one-sidedness of this type of leadership was revealed in the FSA fight as nowhere else in recent years. The FSA was the only Federal agency with a program to improve the lot of the little tenants and to help them to ownership. It was strengthening agriculture below the level of the successful commercial farmer—below the level of Farm Bureau membership. The American Farm Bureau Federation fought the FSA before Congress with a display of eye-gouging and thumb-biting rarely seen even in Washington’s free-for-alls. It did have the outward appearance of a fight by commercial agriculture against the welfare of the poor farmers.

In Washington and in the South the Farm Bureau accused the FSA of being communistic, wasteful, impractical; of plotting a revolution and of trying to force toilets and red tape on unsuspecting farmers. “The Farm Bureau is very definitely opposed to the radical leaders of the FSA who have joined hands with the radical labor leaders to sell agriculture down the river to gain their own selfish ends,” said one tract distributed in the cotton belt.

The FSA program in McLean County was in the hands of Yontz Bonnett, who has owned and farmed 400 acres south of Bloomington for thirtyfive years. He had not heard about the revolution, but he was proud of the loans his office had made to tenants. Their production had increased and they were ahead in their payments as a group. The farmers on the county FSA committee — most of them leaders in the Farm Bureau, incidentally — were worrying over about a half-dozen borrowers who were behind in their payments, wondering what could be done for them. (The Farm Bureau’s “Official News Letter” was describing the FSA as a “heartless landlord.”)

Our paper, the Bloomington Daily Pantograph, looked at the FSA with McLean County eyes and said we could not understand why Illinois should attack an agency devoted to the welfare of the small family farmer. In a few days we received a letter from the Illinois Agricultural Association insisting that the “Farm Bureau has no quarrel with the FSA as it is conducted in the state of Illinois.”

That’s what we thought, too. But because the FSA program did not increase the profits of the successful commercial farmers, it lay outside the Illinois Agricultural Association’s field of immediate interest. So the passive, negative, “no quarrel with the FSA” attitude of the corn-belt Farm Bureaus was allowed to be submerged by the red-eyed anger of the cotton-belt Farm Bureaus. It was the Ol’ Massa mentality of the South that was frightened and maddened by the FSA, and that mentality was allowed to determine the policy of the Farm Bureau’s national lobby.

In referring to the corn-belt farmer as the American kulak, the Chicago Daily News said no one need have fears concerning his wolfare because he is skilled above others in protecting his property. There is no doubt that as an organization man he does strive first to protect his property. But his skill must be questioned.

He has a limited understanding of what really constitutes his property, for one thing. Sometimes he thinks it consists of some habit ual, but outworn, crop pattern, and insists that it should be protected. By contrast, he has a very real stake in family-type farming, but he did not rise to the defense of the FSA as the agency devoted to creating new family farmers. He saw the FSA as something outside his own price and profit circle, and therefore he surrendered to the plantation-minded Southerners.

The corn-belt farmer also has a stake in the condition of the land. But for all his emphasis on guarding his property, for all his powerful lobbies, for all his million-dollar coöperatives, for all his practical educat ion, the land — his land — has decreased in productivity.

He has been skillful in minor tactics, but he has not been skillful in major strategy. He has not been able to stand against the fundamental pressures of industrialism and commercialism, else he would now be practicing a permanent system of agriculture.

From the point of view of the town dweller interested in food, the farm organizations have failed in the same way that all our agricultural planning has failed. They have not protected food resources. In matters of national policy particularly, they expend their energy on second-rate issues.

Earl Smith and the men in the Farm Bureau who think as he does have taken corn-belt, farmers about as far as they can go with existing programs. They have been skillful, but they must be more forwardlooking if food resources are to be brought into lasting adjustment with the needs of our civilization. The next test of their skill is to keep their organizations intact while working toward such fundamentals as land care and better rural living, and away from commodity quarrels, short-run price jockeying, and attacks on rival organizations.