Thoughts on Presidential Leadership
As Americans went to the polls this week – those who hadn’t already voted, that is – my mind turned to a different kind of president. The American Farm Bureau Federation has had 11 presidents before me. These leaders have built and strengthened a movement for farmers and ranchers across the country. It’s not as bad as being President of the United States, of course, but I respect and admire so much the role each of my predecessors played in making the voice of the American farmer heard.
The first president of the AFBF, James R. Howard of Iowa (1920 – 1922), was surprised to be elected. By the end of the February 1919 meeting to make decisions on the structure and governance of the new organization, Howard had purchased his rail ticket and was ready to return home. In fact, another man, Oscar E. Bradfute of Ohio, expected to become president and went so far as to offer Howard the post of secretary of the organization. Howard said he would think about it. Bradfute ended up becoming vice president and then the next president of AFBF.
I respect and admire so much the role each of my predecessors played in making the voice of the American farmer heard.
Some accounts claim that the first Farm Bureau delegates felt that the president’s choice fell on Howard in part because he looked and spoke like a farmer instead of a banker. Maybe it is, but I think they were also impressed with Howard’s vision. In a closing speech, he said: “East and West, North and South have agricultural problems which differ only in their outward aspects. These problems are basically similar or the same. We need to create a national spirit in our agricultural life.
What a perfect way to sum up the purpose of the American Farm Bureau. This vision of national unity often comes to mind. As farmers, we share in each other’s successes and losses, and it is up to each of us to recognize this responsibility and support our fellow farmers and ranchers nationally. Some problems may appear to be regional or local, but they may be repeated in other areas and have a large impact on the farming community.
President Howard oversaw the establishment of the first AFBF offices, work to increase the membership of the Farm Bureau, and the formation of grain, livestock, and fruit and vegetable cooperatives. He also formed the first working group of leaders of the Farm Bureau, a grain marketing committee, to develop solutions to the “marketing problem,” a term that represented farmers’ feelings that they had too little control over them. the price they received for their crops or the price they paid for handling the crops after they left the farm. Today, we are still appointing and engaging local task forces, such as our Livestock Market Task Force which met this year to develop recommendations following this year’s increase in the gap between farm gate price of cattle and wholesale price of beef.
AFBF’s second president, Oscar Bradfute (1923 – 1925), prioritized and expanded AFBF’s work to start cooperatives. According to the history books, Bradfute “took his job seriously but calmly and pondered a lot before making any decisions.” Anyone who has been on the Farm Bureau knows that a lot of thought goes into our policy making process. It’s more the result of our basic structure and statutes than anything to do with President Bradfute, but perhaps a part of his character remains in our organizational DNA.
AFBF’s third president, Sam H. Thompson of Illinois (1926 – 1931), knew that cooperative marketing was important, but he also knew that it was not the only important issue. Perhaps no other AFBF president has done more to expand the Farm Bureau’s work program to a wide variety of legislative initiatives, including tax reforms, rural credit, trade expansion. and authorization of the construction of the river transport system. He also expanded Farm Bureau’s public relations work.
The last president I will mention in this article, so as not to go on forever (the story of the Farm Bureau could fill many pages), is Edward A. O’Neal of Alabama (1931 – 1947). President O’Neal saw the importance of bringing together farmers from different regions (especially the Democratic South and the Republican Midwest). President O’Neal understood that the Farm Bureau would not continue to be successful if the members did not work together and if an American president only paid attention to the factions of the Farm Bureau that were aligned with his administration. President O’Neal also headed the American Farm Bureau at a time when rural representation in Congress was starting to decline dramatically compared to urban representation. For Farm Bureau to be effective, it had to be united. O’Neal’s priority and his greatest contribution to the “farm office movement” was to bring together the various farming regions.
I am preceded in this position by many great leaders who have guided the plow to good harvests. But these four men, Howard, Bradfute, Thompson and O’Neal, gave us the basics of our influence and impact today: organization, focus on farmers’ economic concerns, expansion of legislative work and the successful effort to overcome them divides and unites to achieve common goals. None was more correct than another in moving, concentrating, or expanding the focus of the Farm Bureau. Each, in its own way, represents the power that comes from having the right president at the right time.
As our nation chooses our president for the next four years, I pray for the right president at the right time, and I know that Farm Bureau will continue its long history as the national voice of farmers to the president and administration, as well. than in Congress and in the courts.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Ga., Is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.