In the early days of Wisconsin Farm Bureau, the organization saw much turnover in leadership. New on its feet, it functioned more as a county Farm Bureau does today and there was no staff assistance.
In 1920, when George Hull became the first president membership was at 500 members. In 1921, George McKerrow took over as president, but in 1923, Hull served as president when McKerrow left to maintain his farm.
In 1924, two top officers left their posts to become candidates for political office. Farm Bureau needed to be effective in legislative battles and bipartisan. The membership elected Orrin Fletcher to serve as president.
By 1925, Farm Bureau was established as the voice of Wisconsin farmers. Membership had grown to 3,000 with enthusiasm high to keep building membership.
In 1926, when Hugh Harper was elected president, he didn’t stay in the role long as was typical in the early years of WFBF. There was an issue with the lack of administration to make decisions between the members at the Board meetings. The Wisconsin Farm Service Board was established to be the central management body responsible to the Board.
In 1927, W.G. Patterson helped the organization get back on its feet. Membership had dropped to 1,800 farmers with 26 organized counties.
When Fred E. Coldren assumed the leadership role in 1928, he made the decision to hold the Annual Meeting in Waukesha; this marking the first time it wasn’t held in Madison. News that membership had increased for the first time since 1922 was welcomed.
Janesville native H.C. Hemmingway was elected Farm Bureau president in 1930. Public perception was increasing about the organization and several organization meetings were held in 1931. As the Depression era ramped up, Hemmingway stepped down to vice president and Joseph W. Schwartz took the reins in 1932.
While economically, farmers were hit badly in the Great Depression, social activities such as the Farm Bureau bands and picnics continued to be popular. At the 1932 WFBF Convention, a Farm Bureau Band Tournament was a main attraction. The prize was $100 in gold.
Another means of keeping WFBF viable in the depression years was providing “WFB” branded products such as livestock feeds, salt and minerals, petroleum products, insecticides, machinery, fencing materials and twine.
In 1939, a special convention celebrated Farm Bureau’s 20th anniversary. It also brought the re-election of H.C. Hemmingway. As the Great Depression ended and technological advances in agriculture made it possible for the urban population to grow, it became more important for farmers to have a strong voice when speaking to the legislature. In 1940, WFBF’s first two official lobbyists were registered.
Pressure to increase membership continued to burden WFBF leadership and in 1942, Roscoe Smith from Monroe was elected as president. The Board of Directors announced the hiring of two employees that year: James Green as executive secretary and T.C. Peterson as director of organization.
In 1943, Farm Bureau members made a decision that impacted the future of the organization. They elected Curtis Hatch of Spring Green president. Large membership gains occurred during Hatch’s tenure because of the institution of many new programs and the addition of staff to promote member relations, governmental relations and public relations. Hatch was also the first Wisconsinite to serve on the AFBF Board of Directors.
In 1959, Percy Hardiman was elected president after Hatch’s resignation. Less than two years into their new office building on West Badger Road, Hardiman chose to focus on membership. Membership growth was a concern in the 1950s because of farmers’ interpretations of Farm Bureau’s position on federal dairy price supports.
In 1969, Neelian O. Nelson of Argyle became WFBF President. WFBF had built an office space on Mineral Point Road in Madison. The space housed Wisconsin Farm Bureau; Rural Insurance Companies; Wisconsin Division of FS Services, Inc.; Midwest Livestock Producers; P-M-R Cooperative; Farm Bureau Marketing Association; Member Cooperatives Business Services; and The Clearing.
In 1971, Don Haldeman of Norwalk was elected president and had the longest tenure of all state presidents. The 1970s were good to farmers and Farm Bureau put more of a focus on service to its members and a greater emphasis on supporting youth.
The organizational structure of WFBF staff changed in the 1980s as Haldeman took over duties of administrator. Four divisions were formed: member relations, communications, governmental relations and finance.
Haldeman stepped down in August 1991 to become executive vice president and chief executive officer of Rural Mutual Insurance.
In 1992, Howard (Dan) Poulson was elected as the 14th president of WFBF. Serving on the WFBF Board for more than 20 years, Poulson had plenty of institutional knowledge. Poulson continued
Farm Bureau’s involvement with state and federal issues that impacted farmers.
In 2003, Bill Bruins was elected WFBF President when Poulson retired. The biggest change during Bruins’ tenure was in 2008, when the County Services Program was started.
Dunn County’s Jim Holte became the 16th president when he was elected in 2012. He continues to serve as WFBF’s President.
Look for more history summaries in the upcoming issues of Rural Route. Excerpts from “Seventy-Five Years of Farm Bureau in Wisconsin” were used for this article.
This article was originally published in the February|March 2019 issue of Rural Route.