MFA at 100, part 1
A century-old company sprang from the idea of helping farmers succeed.
MFA is 100 years old this month. In the century since the cooperative was formed, much about agriculture has changed. Those 100 years represent great technological progress. In the field, that time span has brought us from literal horse power to computer-driven machines and satellites as common tools. Gas-powered engines, electricity, commercial fertilizer, refrigeration, chemical weed and pest control, artificial insemination, biotechnology—the change for farming and humanity has been sweeping. Yet, even with such technological advances, the initial reasons for forming MFA remain as the underpinning for the business today.
When farmers joined to start MFA, they did so because they needed a presence in the market—both in buying and selling. They needed ways to finance their operations. They needed bargaining power.
Farmers are among the most ingenious and resourceful people in existenc
e, but their talents are best spent on producing food and fiber rather than scrambling for the raw materials needed to do so. MFA remains, now in its 100th year, as it began—a conduit to help farmers succeed.
At the onset of MFA’s 50th anniversary in 1964, then MFA President Fred Heinkel wrote in Today’s Farmer that he believed that a cooperative like MFA would be as useful in 2014 as it was during its 50th year.
“If in 2014 we are to have the type of efficient, dependable agriculture we have today, we’ll need effective farm organizations then just as badly as we need them now,” wrote Heinkel in a lead editorial.
Of course Heinkel, one of MFA’s strong leaders and personalities, was right. His outlook and pronouncement about the distant future were something you would hope a leader would say. At any moment in history, it is a leader’s job to shape the future.
In this issue we look back to an important leader who was relentless in his belief that an organization like MFA was crucial to farmers—William Hirth. Hirth is considered the founder of MFA, and a major player in the cooperative movement in the United States.
The following stories are excerpts from a new book called Proud Past, Bright Future: MFA’s First 100 Years. Written by MFA Director of Communications Chuck Lay, Proud Past, Bright Future catalogs stories of MFA’s leadership, its business ventures and the failures and successes that have shaped this 100-year-old business.
Lay says that the history of MFA is the history of hundreds if not thousands of individuals who have contributed to the cooperative in varying degrees. MFA is a story of people.
We will continue to celebrate the stories and people of MFA in Today’s Farmer throughout our centennial year.
A human soul on fire
Hirth the organizer
William Hirth burned brightly. A first-class orator, a genius of organization, a national political leader, Hirth bent the world to his will. It was a capacity that brought him acolytes as well as critics, both in his time and since. Alternately, he was vilified as domineering, utterly without humility and bellicose by his critics, especially those in academia.
Yet to his supporters, Hirth, the farm boy who rose from obscurity on a Rush Hill farm in central Missouri to become a national farm leader who dined with presidents and senators, was a dynamo of leadership, a man obsessed with changing the lives of farmers for the better. Hirth’s vision? The creation of the farm organization which became MFA—a battle he refused to lose.
William Hirth created the Missouri Farmers Association, one of the 20th century’s most successful and dynamic cooperatives and one still thriving in the 21st. Seven farmers from the Newcomer Schoolhouse Farm Club near Brunswick are rightly praised as the genesis of the organization. But make no mistake, they followed the template Hirth forged. Hirth wrought that template (even to the extent of conceiving the famous shield logo himself) through passion, persuasion, skill and no small amount of luck.
Born March 23, 1875, Hirth was raised on the family farm in Audrain County, Mo. His experience of the soul-dampening drudgery of 1800s farm life was acquired firsthand. As a young man, Hirth saved enough money to finance a year’s tuition at McGee College in Macon. A year later, he transferred to Central College in Fayette. His money ran out in two years. Nearly penniless, he left college and began selling insurance. He prospered. By 1900, he and his new wife, Lillian Vincent, moved to Columbia where he read law and was admitted to the bar.
In 1906 he purchased the Columbia Statesman newspaper. But agriculture continued to hold his interest. By 1908 he realized his dream of developing a statewide agricultural publication when he purchased The Missouri Farmer and Breeder, now Today’s Farmer. The first
issue was published October 15, 1908. In February 1912, he shortened the name to The Missouri Farmer.
By 1914, The Missouri Farmer, widely popular in state agricultural circles, was the official publication for the Missouri Farm Management Association, the Missouri Cattle Feeders Association, the Missouri Corn Growers Association, the Missouri Draft Horse Breeders Association, the Missouri Dairy Association and the Missouri Sheep Breeders Association. Hirth owned the tabloid magazine until his death in 1940.
At the time, the U.S. Census Bureau, newly ensconced in the just-created U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, counted 92 million citizens in the 46 states. For historical perspective, consider: the first ship had yet to steam through the newly built Panama Canal. When Hirth named his magazine The Missouri Farmer, the HMS Titanic was two months shy of finding the iceberg. Orville and Wilbur Wright had defied gravity just nine years earlier. Henry Ford was still a year away from mass production of the Model T. Horse and mule teams powered agriculture. One quarter to one third of farm acreage was devoted to oats and forage crops for those teams.
The Missouri Farmer provided Hirth a platform to evangelize. Print was king. The first commercial radio broadcast was eight years in the future. Telephones were nonexistent. Electricity was enjoyed only by select urban elite.
The Missouri Farmer hit a rural nerve and drew instant response. Hirth’s passion was organization, which he saw as key to improving farm life. Hirth preached
organized cooperation repeatedly in its pages. Cooperation in terms of a business structure had been introduced early in America by Benjamin Franklin. History proved the principle sound. Aaron Bachtel, a farmer and stockman just north of Brunswick, was a subscriber who took Hirth’s ideas seriously.
“In the February 1914 issue,” Bachtel said, “there was a short article wherein it stated that farmers should organize into school district Farm Clubs and how they could be benefited by such organizations. It looked so simple and at the same time so far reaching, that it appealed to me very forcibly.”
Bachtel wrote Hirth, asking for a bundle of the papers to distribute to his neighbors. He asked those same neighbors to meet at the Newcomer Schoolhouse the following Tuesday night.
A prominent farmer, Bachtel lent his name and reputation to the cause. He asked his neighbors to unite in the purchase of farm supplies and inputs. By seizing the initiative, Bachtel overcame local doubt and skepticism to convince others that Hirth’s idea to organize farmers around a cooperative concept was sound. The group pooled an order for 1,150 pounds of penitentiary binder twine and sent it to Hirth in Columbia. The Newcomer Schoolhouse Farm Club volume buy netted the men $400 in savings.
That Newcomer Schoolhouse Farm Club order, the first Hirth received, counted as the creation of the Missouri Farmers Association. It marked the beginning of what grew into a cooperative devoted to pooling orders and distributing accumulated savings. The farm club idea swept the countryside, according to historians, like a prairie fire. Subsequent to that first order, Hirth contracted with the West Virginia Coal Company at a set price for coal. Bachtel and his neighbors were on board.
Soon after the order, coal prices jumped, but the fledgling MFA had a contract at the cheaper price. Bachtel received several carloads and proceeded to instruct area farmers in the value of the farm clubs. As Bachtel later related: “I told all the farmers, regardless of whether they were members or not, to come in and get coal just the same, with one provision, that when they got their coal, if they thought the Farm Club was really worthwhile they were to pay their dues and become members, which they did, all but one man.” Bachtel would pause in the telling and add: “And I’ve never liked him since.”
The members of the Newcomer Schoolhouse Farm Club at that first meeting were: Aaron Bachtel, T.E. Penick, brothers W.J. and George Heisel, Earl Smutz, John Kohl and W.L. Armstrong. Ten more members quickly flocked to the club. Throughout the state, the scene was repeated, and repeated, and repeated again.
For perspective on the prairie-fire metaphor, consider: Within five years, approximately 1,000 MFA farm clubs were created representing every corner of the state. Just over 10 years later, Hirth could announce the existence of hundreds of exchanges, elevators, central produce plants, creameries, livestock shipping associations, livestock commission companies, a grain commission company, a purchasing department and produce sales agencies. All told these fledgling creations dedicating themselves to MFA were generating gross sales of more than $100 million.
Bachtel would serve as president of MFA’s first farm club and become the first farmer to sign MFA’s unique, but doomed to fail, producer contract. Bachtel would log 20 years of distinguished service on MFA’s corporate board of directors.
Through the pages of The Missouri Farmer, Hirth chronicled farmer efforts and savings of farm clubs, urging continued development of more clubs where farmers could organize and socialize in much the same way town businesspeople joined business, political and benevolent organizations. Self-interest, said
Hirth, should be a natural draw for historically independent farmers.
Yet organizing farm families was a steep hill as Hirth reflected in a radio speech in 1931: “And there are reasons why farmers are hard to organize. In the first place, they live somewhat isolated lives. The laborer or businessman in town is in almost hourly touch with his fellows, while often except to talk to a neighbor across the fence, or when he passes him on a public road, the farmer lives in the bosom of his family and in his fields and feedlots for a week or more at a time.”
Hirth, nevertheless, was wildly successful in convincing farmers of the benefits of cooperation, due in main to the force of his personality and his frenetic, but strategic, schedule. In May of 1920, Hirth was the principal speaker at the Barton County farm clubs’ meeting in Lamar. The Lamar Democrat covered his speech and concluded “Hirth made a profound impression.” In 1921, Hirth appeared in Warsaw in the afternoon, Cole Camp that evening, Versailles the following morning. His schedule took him to Stockton, Browning, Treloar, Flint Hill, Kirksville, St. James as well as multiple towns in Franklin, Macon, Shelby and Lewis counties in a matter of weeks.
Local buildings could not contain the crowds. Newspapers described small-town traffic jams, farm families waiting hours for entrance and a rural audience enthralled.
Farm clubs structured meetings, printed songbooks, formed a women’s auxiliary organization (Women’s Progressive Farmers Association or WPFA in 1921) and scheduled debates. Hundreds of clubs held debates every two weeks, organized fishing trips, held parades several miles long and hosted barbecues. The spirit of a camp revival was in the air.
At those meetings Hirth encouraged farmers to spread the gospel, noting that although many farmers were uncomfortable in the speaker’s role, it was a mission worth the effort. True oratory, he intoned, was not faultless diction or learned phrases. True oratory “is a human soul on fire with a great cause.”
Hirth leverages farmers’ new power
Demonstrating the effectiveness of the power of centralized buying, offers poured in from flour mills, Ford and Dodge motor companies, tire manufacturers, seed merchants and new animal health businesses like Anchor Serum Company of St. Joseph.
Hirth, ever the skeptical farmer/businessman, immediately wrote Dr. J.R. Mohler, chief of the Bureau Animal Industry, U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, and asked for his opinion “as to the standing of the Anchor Serum Company of South St. Joseph.”
And Hirth, being Hirth, was direct, if not confrontational with recalcitrant vendors, writing June 19, 1929, to the Morton Salt Company:
The Missouri Farmers’ Association operates 377 Grain Elevators and Produce Exchanges in this State, and is therefore the most powerful distributive machine of its kind in the Corn Belt. For a number of years we have had Contracts with leading flour, feed, fertilizer and twine manufacturers which give us inside terms, but whenever we have attempted to make such a Contract with a good Salt company we have been met with an attitude of mystery and reticence, and some of these companies have admitted to us confidentially that they are afraid of the retaliation of the Morton Salt company should they enter into such an arrangement.
The time has come when we are determined to unearth the actual facts in these premises, and if necessary we will ask the Federal Trade Commission to inaugurate a thorough investigation. However, before we do this I have concluded to put the matter up to you in the hope that we may be able to reach a friendly understanding on this score with your Company or with some other responsible company. An organization of the size of the Missouri Farmers’ Association is entitled to consideration in proportion to its distributive power and we shall insist upon such recognition.
Morton Salt hastened to assure Hirth that the rumors were unfounded. Salt contracts were forthcoming.
In 1919, Hirth listed the farm club accomplishments to date. Farm clubs, he wrote, have: 1) placed members in position to buy farm needs at lowest wholesale price; 2) financed and taken over 60 local elevators with plans for 150 before 1920; 3) been first to introduce a Live Stock Shipping Association in Missouri; 4) financed a flour mill costing $300,000; 5) secured regulation changes regarding the handling of meat under the Food Administration; 6) met with J. Ogden Armour as the first organized effort to work out a solution to packing interest; and 7) organized farmers to influence legislation.
By way of explanation of those accomplishments, Hirth, with the executive committee and the full board of directors of the nascent MFA, had lobbied newspaper editors and lawmakers for passage of an agricultural cooperative law allowing patronage refunds and streamlining cooperative practices. They also fought for and won government standardization of weights and measures for business scales that had been a bit haphazard before.
MFA sponsored a legislative dinner in Jefferson City to explain farmers’ intentions in building self-help cooperatives. MFA’s corporate board sponsored the law and saw to its passage by the newly lobbied legislature in 1919.
Just a year before, Hirth, never one to think small, took a group of official MFA representatives to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Agricultural Committee of the Senate to explain MFA’s position on a federal cattle and hog feeder program. In each case, Hirth was upfront on intentions. MFA would be known for putting cards on the table frankly, in full view. No subterfuge for the new MFA.
Emboldened by success, Hirth led the group to Chicago to meet with J. Ogden Armour, titan of the meat-packing industry. Armour met with the group to discuss cattle and hog markets but made no promises. Hirth, however, made a friend with whom he corresponded in subsequent years. Despite no concrete proposals, Hirth still considered the trip a success. The farmers were flexing newly acquired muscle.
The right man for the job
Hirth finds success in hiring business talent
Hirth learned important, but not complete, lessons from these early enterprises. Previously, in the early 1920s, responding to farmer demand, MFA exchanges were clamoring for mixed feed. Local MFA groups organized the Farm Club Mill and Feed Company of Springfield. The enterprise got off to a rocky start. By 1923, the MFA organization had loaned the mill $3,000. Still, the business floundered. Hirth, through MFA, advanced another $2,000 and changed the name to MFA Purchasing Department and finally MFA Milling Company.
Two things were needed immediately: a new facility to meet growing demand and a corresponding influx of capital. Mill officials identified a milling property as a likely solution. Hirth called on friends and political connections in the Springfield area, asking Ewing Y. Mitchell, a prominent lawyer in Springfield, how best to obtain a $50,000 loan. In documents supporting the loan request, the mill is described as a property of “brick, inside the floors are wood construction. The elevator is a crib elevator with sheet iron on the sides, and has a capacity of 125,000 bushel. This elevator was built in 1908 and is practically as good as new.”
Capacity for 20 railcars was available with switching tracks served by the Frisco and the Missouri Pacific. MFA received the loan and incorporated the business under the Non-Stock Cooperative Act. This time a majority of MFA board members populated the board of directors of the MFA Milling Company.
Still, the business languished. On Jan. 20, 1932, Hirth received a letter from MFA and MFA Milling Company board member T.M. Chapman of Ozark. “…I cannot refrain from mentioning some things that are playing havoc with our business that you may not be familiar with. In the least about everything has happened that could be thought of to handicap the Mill at Springfield. In the first place competition has been very strong in our line. The low prices for poultry and dairy products has left not much incentive for buying high-class mixed feeds in order to increase production.”
Chapman goes on to complain of MFA exchanges using their own mills or grinders “hooked on to ford cars or small tractors that move from farm to farm and grind everything at a very low cost. …The thought of the Mill going down gives me a nightmare. I can’t think of anything that would be more humiliating to me than to admit that the Mill is a failure.”
Hirth knew better. Despite a majority MFA board oversight, the problem was management. And though it took until 1935 to find the right man for the job, Hirth finally tapped John F. Johnson, an MFA auditor and exchange manager at first Marshfield and then West Plains. Johnson proceeded to build the business from 354,778 bags of feed to 10,566,446 hundred-pound bags by 1959.
The MFA Milling Company was off to a great start and a greater history. For the nearly 40 years of Johnson’s leadership, MFA Milling Company would dominate the feed business in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. MFA Milling Company would become one of the largest cooperative feed businesses in the country, serving farmers in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas and returning more than $26 million in cash patronage refunds.
“We’ll buy the whiskey.”
Hirth negotiates internal strife
A management disaster brewed on the horizon: Chillicothe Producers Produce Company. Hirth hired A.B. Drescher in a sales capacity, from which Drescher would prove his business acumen. Drescher was assigned territory that included Chillicothe. His reports concluded the manager was running a good-ole-boy business, paying higher prices to friends, buying outside the system and delivering inferior products that were seriously undermining MFA’s reputation.
At the time, MFA through the Producers Produce Companies, was providing one-fifth of the U.S. eggs exported to Canada. One Canadian shipment included 37 railcars of MFA producers’ eggs. A tariff enacted by the United States Congress ended those shipments despite Hirth’s vocal, and public, complaints.
In terms of profitability, Chillicothe Producers was 75 cents per egg case below Springfield which equated to $300 per railroad car. Drescher had no luck with Fred G. Peters, manager of the Chillicothe company. In fact, communication with Peters was fractious and confrontational.
Drescher was disgusted with what he saw as inept management. “The showing at Chillicothe is just about as it has been for two or three years—did it ever occur to you that with a volume of over two million and paying LESS than Springfield pays and this nearly every day in the year, the profits are almost nothing—I wonder if the wise men on the Chillicothe Board ever think of that, or of ANYTHING.”
More to the point, Drescher noted Chillicothe’s business practices were damaging MFA’s brand: “I wrote you what the concern at Cincinnati said or wrote about MFA poultry, they said they would not be interested in it AT ANY PRICE—this because of their experiences with Chillicothe.”
Drescher hammered out letter after letter apprising Hirth of the situation, which Drescher felt, was deteriorating by the hour. His solution? Centralized management of the MFA companies. “I think the time for ACTION is right here, by action I mean this oft talked about SHOW DOWN—not any d-n audit of the books of Chillicothe or Shelbina or any other point as we had that sort of thing once and the Board at Chillicothe never batted an eye—but what I mean is to either BUY or lease or take over in some way the BUSINESS of the MFA—its Central plants FIRST, especially those in north Missouri, and CLEAN HOUSE . . ..”
Drescher wanted management and boards fired and replaced. More to the point, he wanted centralized control. He wanted Hirth to: “START OVER AGAIN and start RIGHT.”
Furthermore, Drescher wanted to hire three individuals who were outstanding managers who knew the business thoroughly, divide the state geographically and put these men in charge of the poultry and egg plants. The three would report directly to Hirth. Drescher’s prescient plan mirrors MFA’s current corporate structure.
Hirth and Drescher were as one on the idea of central control. Hirth made no secret of his desire to replace management and the board or start a new facility nearby. He had ample evidence that something was amiss in Chillicothe.
For two years, he had been demanding an audit of the company’s books, something he could only do with permission. Peters had refused to open his books, raising Hirth’s suspicions and underscoring his desire for control. Hirth was also receiving inquiries from members.
O.A. Grim of Trenton wrote Hirth asking about the situation. Grim’s letter is not in the Western Historical Manuscript files, but Hirth’s response is. “I have your letter with reference to the situation at Chillicothe, and apparently things are in bad shape down there. However you will appreciate that our Association cannot interfere until the Exchanges up there ask us to do so, for if we took a hand on our own initiative we would be charged of trying to make a bad situation worse.”
By fall of 1929, the situation became untenable. In mid-October, Hirth and Drescher attended a meeting of the Chillicothe Producers Produce Company. Management and board members, as well as a large contingent of local members, expected Hirth’s attendance and were loaded for bear. Manager Peters and
Board Member Frank Scott were anti-Hirth and rallied others to their cause. Scott had been elected secretary of MFA but had been dismissed in the past year.
Like most of the renegade locations, they had no desire for what they termed “outside interference.”
Peters began the meeting by delivering his management report. Hirth rose to question him. Board members immediately pounced, turning the meeting into an inquest on Hirth’s character, accusing him of using The Missouri Farmer to further his own cause and further accusing him of buying liquor for a commission company distributing MFA goods.
That last part was true, Hirth replied. “If it takes whiskey to help the cause of cooperation, we’ll buy the whiskey.” The situation deteriorated. The audience enthusiastically re-elected their board, effectively repudiating Hirth who had brought a list of replacement candidates. Hirth went home determined, not defeated. He understood the implications. Furthermore, he understood just what was at play: his adversarial relationship with Howard Cowden, Frank Scott and the newly formed Federal Farm Board.
Hirth the politician and a political adversary
The newly created Missouri Farmers Association needed more than organizing; it required political capital both state and national. William Hirth was uniquely suited for that job, too. By the mid-1920s he was a member of the executive committee of the American Council of Agriculture, representing MFA. More importantly, on the national scene in 1925, the Corn Belt Committee was organized with a membership drawing together the largest group of influential farm leaders in the country.
The Corn Belt Committee represented 24 farm groups including Farm Bureau, Farmers Unions, the Equity, the Grange and multiple Corn Growers Association groups as well as many others. The group’s purpose was to speak on agricultural legislation as one, make agriculture’s positions known to legislators and the public and pronounce “upon all matters concerning agriculture.” Hirth’s oratory skills were well known and respected by the group. His national standing made him a natural leader. He was selected president of the newly formed Corn Belt Committee and retained that position for several years. In his capacity as chairman, Hirth helped make agriculture a national concern. His speeches and activities also attracted the attention of national leaders, including one who would soon be mulling a presidential bid—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, governor of New York.
Hirth held that national attention until his death. And with good cause. Because of his national leadership efforts and accomplishments, Hirth’s name would be formally submitted unanimously by the entire Missouri delegation—Democrats and Republicans—to President Calvin Coolidge for the position of secretary of agriculture. Hirth demurred, asking that his name be withdrawn. His appointment, said Hirth, could only mean “hell in the kitchen rather than the harmony which the President undoubtedly desires and has a right to expect.”
But Hirth’s focus was not simply national. Missouri had plenty of obstacles for farmers trying to grow and move products. Country roads were impassible for large chunks of the year making it difficult if not impossible to deliver farm products to towns and MFA markets. Solution? Hirth jumped with both feet into initiating legislation authorizing farm-to-market roads and personally lobbied political leaders and newspaper editorial boards. Through his highly influential The Missouri Farmer, he chronicled his efforts and urged the membership to lobby alongside.
“Many times during recent years the farmers of North Missouri were hardly able to bury their loved ones because of bad roads,” intoned Hirth in a speech at the MFA convention, “while their children are forced to wade ankle deep through mud in going back and forth to school, and so bad roads often keep our few remaining rural churches closed for weeks at a time.” He convinced the organization and its board to get behind legislation pulling farmers out of the mud.
Road legislation soon passed at the state level. In the long term, the legislation failed to achieve all Hirth demanded because of what Hirth described as a politically controlled Highway Administration. The Missouri Farmer, he said in 1928, “is unalterably opposed to any more bond issues for cross-state highways, until something substantial has been done for the neglected dirt roads.” Hirth carried on his farm-to-market road campaign until his death in 1940. His successor would deliver Hirth’s promised improvements.
The state/national/agricultural focus took much of Hirth’s already busy schedule. In his Jan. 25, 1925, talk with managers, Hirth gave a glimpse of his Washington efforts: “…I am just back from Washington, where as a member of the Executive Committee of the American Council of Agriculture I appeared before the President’s Agricultural Commission and also before the Agricultural Committees of the House and Senate—and the latter was a ‘showdown’ such as perhaps these Committees have never witnessed before.”
Hirth was famous for his political “showdowns,” at one point locking the door to the Agriculture Committee room so that no member could leave until he finished. In the early 1930s, Hirth testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Hirth, by contemporary accounts, was a large man for his times, had bushy eyebrows and cast a commanding presence. He finished his testimony, turned on his heel and stalked out of the room. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, who had attended, chased after Hirth, finally catching him in the Senate corridor. “Mr. Hirth,” he is reported to have said, “Mr. Hirth,” he repeated when Hirth stopped and turned to face Wallace. “You didn’t give that committee some of the facts.” Hirth scrunched down his eyebrows, scowled at the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and said, “Facts? Facts, hell. That Committee didn’t need facts.They needed their minds changed.”
The federal fiasco
Hirth navigates the Great Depression
At the precipice of the Depression, Hirth was actively lobbying the federal government for facility loans. After the Depression hit, Hirth stepped up his correspondence and lobbying as banks failed. Without the ability to immediately deliver capital, structurally sound businesses faced disaster. MFA had a large number of businesses. An even larger number of banks were failing. And as they failed, creditors were calling loans.
A Federal Farm Board had been formed to review loans for the express purpose of providing federal loans to businesses in just these situations. At the outset, Hirth had not been a fan. His preferred solution was a practical one: use existing Intermediate Credit Banks. In fact, consider his June 2, 1929, telegram reply to a request from U.S. Representative Clarence Cannon of Missouri: “I would contemptuously reject place on Federal Farm Board if it was offered.”
Although Hirth was watching banks across Missouri and the country topple, he had no patience with new Washington bureaucracies and political theorists. Above all, Hirth was a practical man. He corresponded with his friend Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota (chairman of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee and patron of Mount Rushmore) concerning the newly organized Federal Farm Board and comments by its political creators.
Those individuals had suggested supplying money to farmers to help them federate, consolidate and build membership in cooperatives. Hirth found their designs “wholly unsound.” What Hirth wanted was a ready source of capital for cooperatives already organized and able to offer sound collateral to back those loans. As he went on to explain, “I have never had the slightest patience with the idea that it is a legitimate obligation of the Government to supply money to organize farmers, however distressing their plight may be; if such a proposal were made with reference to working men and women, I think it would be considered preposterous, and I see no reason why it is less so when it applies to farmers, even admitting their rather pitiful economic condition at the present time. In other words, unless farmers still have enough red blood in their veins to organize themselves together for mutual benefit, then we might as well let the tail go with the hide.”
Hirth had been in constant communication with his friend Arthur Hyde, who was the current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under Coolidge. Hyde had been governor of Missouri (1921–25) and he and Hirth had long-standing ties. Hirth didn’t seek largess; he envisioned the federal government supplying loans only to those concerns with sound balance sheets and with the loan offset by proper security. He wanted politics out of the equation. But separating politics from federal programs was too much to expect.
Hirth moved back and forth between his friend Agriculture Secretary Hyde and Alexander Legge, chairman of the Federal Farm Board. Hirth stated in his letter to Legge, “…considering that the M.F.A. is almost the biggest cooperative in point of operations in the Country, surely I am not asking for anything that is unreasonable, and remember we will be glad to establish the soundness of every loan for which we ask, and in very few instances will we ask for more than 50% of the fair physical value of the agency in question.”
Hirth soon stumbled across an unforeseen obstacle. As Hirth discovered, Fred G. Peters of MFA’s Chillicothe Producers Produce had been in communication with Legge as well. Peters wanted to sever all ties with MFA. He wanted direct loans to Chillicothe with no interference from the MFA organization. And he wanted a seat on the Federal Farm Board to put a thumb in Hirth’s eye.
Throughout the start of the Depression, Hirth had been doing the legwork for all of MFA’s various businesses. His intent was for MFA, as the presiding organization, to receive loans for whichever MFA organization was most in need. From a management standpoint, the practice was sound. It would also provide him with leverage in dealing with errant MFA organizations. Legge called the requests for loans
“unnecessary duplication” and wanted the matter “to be cleared up.”
Hirth was undeterred, writing Dec. 31, 1929, to Legge: “I have your letter of December 28th, and there is really nothing further that I can say with reference to the Missouri situation—there is no chance for a compromise in these premises, it is purely a question of whether your Board will insist on doing business through the Officials of an Association, or whether it will recognize disgruntled factions within it.”
In further correspondence to Legge, Hirth reflects the Depression’s reality: “I just wanted to drop you a line to say that another bank has failed at Gorin, Missouri during the present week, and this makes five closed banks in Scotland County during the present year—the point is that each of these failures has not only seriously hurt our Farmers Exchanges in that County, but under the circumstances you can appreciate the almost impossible task we are up against when we seek to finance a Creamery or agency of similar size.”
The loans never materialized.
Howard Cowden made no small plans
Hirth’s lieutenant and other ambitions
Howard A. Cowden was an able, ambitious young man in Polk County. In 1919 he hired on as secretary at Polk County Farmers Association, headquartered in Bolivar. The job of secretary at any of the farm clubs was new and expanding. As it developed, the county secretaries took orders from farm clubs in the county, pooled those orders and sent them to Hirth. Hirth, in turn, pooled county orders and arranged carload deliveries at volume discounts.
In The Missouri Farmer, Hirth asked for patience for the individuals in these roles. “Every one of them is ‘plowing a new furrow,’ and it will take them a year or two to hit their pace…in the past, too many farmers have wanted to put six bits into the till and pull out a dollar and a half the next morning. Remember, that in a large measure these county secretaries are going to have to create their own duties. …”
Hirth’s calls for patience were unnecessary in Cowden’s case. Cowden shone immediately. Right away, he caught the eye of Hirth who was effusive with his praise. Hirth saw great things in Cowden’s future. And great things would come. But not at MFA.
At the time, Hirth was serving as unofficial overall secretary of the expanding MFA. He was MFA’s chief organizer and event speaker. He was also publishing his magazine and actively leading on the state and national political scenes. His time was at a premium. He needed relief. He soon looked to the efficient and effective young man at the Polk County Farmers Association.
Cowden was quiet, thoughtful and soft-spoken. He was also aggressive, fiercely competitive and, as you’ll see, manipulative. Hirth was impressed by and approved of Cowden’s work. Cowden became a field man in short order and traveled the region, signing up thousands of new MFA members.
Hirth rewarded Cowden’s early success by hiring him as the first official secretary of MFA. Cowden began his duties on the first day of 1922. According to Gilbert Fite in his history of Farmland Industries, when Cowden took over Hirth’s duties as secretary, he found “little order in the affairs of MFA and little of anything that resembled a business system.” It was fair criticism. With Hirth’s workload, disarray of paperwork could be expected.
Cowden set to organizing the paperwork and implementing more structured business practices. He also enjoyed an almost unfettered luxury denied Hirth. He focused only on the business side of the evolving cooperative. He also took control of the handful of field men who were currently organizing farmers, farm clubs, exchanges and assorted MFA-affiliated businesses.
Hirth was delighted with the arrangement. Up to that point, Hirth had been working 16-hour days, six and one-half days a week—all without official position and no salary. Cowden’s initiative and efficiency allowed Hirth time to devote to his other duties.
Specifically, Hirth fleshed out an idea to contractually bind farmers to deliver products to MFA facilities. Those contracts would guarantee a predetermined stream of grain, poultry, livestock and milk products. With those guaranteed volumes, MFA would strengthen its position (and by extension, the farmer’s position) in negotiations with buyers.
The Producers Contract was adopted by the delegates at MFA’s annual convention in 1923. William Hirth’s concept for the contract was to end the practice of farmers dumping commodities on a down market, further depressing prices. From Hirth’s perspective, locking farmers into a contract would allow MFA a strategic and orderly control of the marketing of those commodities. The first contract was signed by Aaron Bachtel whose farm club had proved the genesis of MFA. Each farmer paid a $10 fee to participate. According to Hirth, the purpose of the contract was “to pool the selling of farm commodities so they can be disposed of through great central Selling Agencies and thus place in the organized farmer’s hands the power to have something to say about what he shall receive from the fruits of his yearly toil.”
Elsewhere in the country, the contract idea was already successful in individual commodities such as tobacco, citrus, wheat and cotton. MFA’s attempt was the first to lock in a contract across multiple lines of products.
Cowden was given control of organizing the contract sign-up. Hirth, mostly in Washington working on national legislation, took a back seat and offered advice. Cowden aggressively marketed the contract proposal, his way. MFA field men pushed the contract in the countryside. Simultaneously, Hirth pushed for the creation of an “Old Guard.” To join this exclusive MFA club, members had to have brought in 10 new members in one year, organized one new farm club of at least 10 members or obtained contract signatures of 75 percent of farmers in a school district.
Hirth’s advice to Cowden was to have the “Old Guard,” as proven loyal members (men and women), recruit farmers to sign the contract and stay at it until 75 percent of farmers signed up in a county. Cowden’s plan was to employ field men to gather as many signatures as quickly as possible and move to the next county regardless of the percentage of farmers signed. Cowden defied Hirth and implemented his own idea, employing the field men who reported to him personally. Hirth was constantly on the move. Cowden stayed put. Under Cowden’s method, some counties barely reached 30 percent.
The contract never lived up to Hirth’s expectation. Noting the effects of the Depression, MFA officially ended the contract in 1933. MFA returned all fees with 6 percent interest, thereby establishing even more credibility for the cooperative. Approximately 50,000 farmers had signed the contract, but not all had paid. Refunds amounted to $487,240 plus interest of $24,500.
Cowden continued to build the business and cultivate field men and, more importantly, board directors. Cowden was astute. He thought big picture. He saw opportunity and he moved forward in efforts to shape MFA into a more efficient organization. More to the point, Cowden kept his eye on the developing farmer need of petroleum products like kerosene, gasoline, oil and lubricants.
Henry Ford had begun mass production of the Model T, and Americans were beginning a love affair still in place today. Farmers were no different, with one exception. They also fell in love with tractors. And Henry Ford, himself a farm boy, designed and mass produced the Fordson Model F. It was the first small, lightweight tractor on the market. Better still, it was priced within a farmer’s reach. Quickly capturing a 70 percent market share, the Fordson begat an agricultural quest for fuels and lubricants. By 1925, Ford had manufactured half a million Fordsons.
Cowden saw potential and quietly began a quest of his own that would lead him to fortune and to trouble.
Farm Bureau, consolidation attempts and the peace treaty
Hirth’s loyalty to MFA shapes the future
Today, Farm Bureau and MFA share common goals and philosophies, participate jointly in projects and cater to many of the same members. That wasn’t always the case. Farm Bureau and MFA were both created in the same time frame. MFA, however, was the first to provide immediate economic benefits.
Farm Bureau was more or less a creation of Extension. As James Rhodes, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, points out in his analysis, Missouri legislation permitted county governments to sponsor and finance county agents, whose funding came courtesy of the passage of national legislation. The early Farm Bureau remained closely tied to Extension, USDA and agricultural colleges.
From Hirth’s perspective, he bore no ill will toward Farm Bureau, but considered “that under the Smith-Lever Act which brought it into being its function is purely educational, while on the other hand, the M.F.A. grapples first hand with the farmer’s marketing problems, and admitting that the educational field is vital, in this hour when the average farmer is struggling desperately to pay his interest and taxes, is not a better price for what he produces, and a lower price on feed, flour, fertilizer, etc., at least equally vital? [Emphasis in original]”
Hirth saw unnecessary duplication in terms of associations. From his perspective, he had organized farmers first. What’s more, Hirth saw Extension as an MFA roadblock. He thought correctly that Extension had chosen sides. Hirth was anti-Extension but pro-University of Missouri.
As he wrote in The Missouri Farmer, “And while, on the other hand we protest against lavish expenditure of money for a swarm of Extension men who will not be needed from this time forward, we bear cheerful testimony to the fact that such men as Dr. Whitten, Dr. Connaway, Prof. Eckles, Prof. Haseman, Prof. Kempster, Prof. Weaver, Prof. Allison, Prof. Miller, Prof. Trowbridge, Prof. Etheridge, Prof. Talbert and others have rendered a service in recent years which the farmer of this state can never repay. . .” Many of the articles in The Missouri Farmer were written by these professors and others. Hirth considered it MFA’s mission to pass along to farmers the research and expertise provided by these professors.
But claimed or not, similarities were great between Farm Bureau and MFA, so much so that many saw destiny in combining the two into one entity. In the late teens and early twenties, several attempts were made to do just that. As late as the 1940s, merger proposals bubbled up.
At the start, Hirth was having none of it. He saw Farm Bureau as an association of farmers united to provide agricultural education and structured such that it could at some point provide collective buying and marketing. MFA had already plowed that ground, he said. MFA was designed for economic reasons, first and foremost, said Hirth. Besides, as noted above, MFA had hundreds of farm clubs, hundreds of exchanges, dozens of elevators and a large number of economically viable agricultural businesses serving a national market.
Hirth envisioned Farm Bureau’s 1921 overture as an attempt to assume control of “our hundreds of elevators and Exchanges and larger marketing agencies in whose investment they didn’t have a single dollar.” Hirth’s rebuttal to Farm Bureau’s outline of cooperation was termed a peace treaty.
The peace treaty stated Farm Bureau would forgo cooperative marketing and purchasing, something Farm Bureau dismissed out of hand. According to Vera Busiek Schuttler’s “History of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation,” one of the Farm Bureau officials on receipt of the treaty sarcastically referred to MFA’s proposal as “Welcome to the MFA.” The merger talks dropped from public sight—or at least Hirth’s sight—for several years.
Still, Hirth was not unalterably opposed to a merger between the two organizations. He stated publicly and repeatedly that “under the proper conditions I will welcome it most cordially, and this has been my attitude for a number of years. But anxious as I am to wipe out the gulf that separates the two organizations, I will not agree to terms that will undermine and eventually destroy the great Farm Club machine which has been built up with such laborious effort during the last 15 years, and which merely stands on the threshold of its greatest usefulness.”
Grant upfront that Hirth was biased. From Hirth’s perspective, the most effective means of achieving one organization (as he stated at a meeting with Farm Bureau leaders) was to dissolve Farm Bureau and absorb its members into MFA, adding the Bureau’s board members to MFA’s board and “take these Farm Bureau members into the fold on terms of absolute equality with our own members.”
In the background of this debate, Howard Cowden was hard at work as MFA’s efficient secretary. He was busy cultivating board members, interacting with his staff of paid field men and streamlining MFA’s business operations. He was enticing MFA board members to serve as paid field men while they were also serving on the board, tying them to him more closely still.
In 1926, he had two other items on his agenda: meeting MFA’s fast-growing demand for motor oils and products and working behind the scenes with MFA’s executive committee (members he had personally cultivated and placed) on his own proposal to merge MFA with Farm Bureau. According to Schuttler’s “History of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation,” at a Feb. 9, 1927, meeting with Farm Bureau, “Cowden presented a plan for a new state organization, together with consolidation of the livestock marketing agencies in which the MFA and the MFBF were interested.”
Cowden wanted to create the Missouri Agricultural Association, complete down to corporate structure with specified divisions and associated management positions: Produce, Grain, Livestock, Finance, Legislation, Purchasing, Legal, Accounting, Transportation, Insurance, Organization, Field Service and Education (history’s cruel irony is that MFA eventually wound up with these same divisions). Enacting this would require two bold steps: first marginalizing and then defeating William Hirth.
Hirth, upon seeing the document for the first time much later, would envision the skeleton of a political machine run by the board’s executive committee, much like the one employed by Kansas City’s political boss Tom Pendergast, whose machine Hirth fought against mightily in the political arena.
Farm Bureau executives thought they were dealing in good faith with MFA as an organization. As it turned out, they were dealing with a faction that was actively trying to wrest control of the cooperative from Hirth.
All the while, Hirth, as chairman of the Corn Belt Committee, was in Washington leading the charge on the McNary-Haugen bill. He had left Cowden in charge of MFA activities, but remained unaware of the extent and nature of Cowden’s plans. The renegade MFA bunch was about to learn a valuable lesson about poking the “Lone Grizzly,” as Hirth had described himself in a letter to a friend.
See more MFA history from Proud Past, Bright Future in the April issue of Today’s Farmer.
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