Founded in part to fix the price of Texas cotton, the National Farmers Union predates the much bigger and more conservative American Farm Bureau Federation by a generation.
Ten men started the union in 1902. Incorporation papers filed in Texas stated the purpose: "To assist each other in getting better prices for their products."
About a year later, the Houston Post took note. "With no blast of trumpets, nor fulsome declaration from the housetops, this organization has persistently and intelligently pursued its work, till today it numbers within its ranks not less than 30,000 of the real farmers in Eastern Texas."
The union spread to other states. By 1906, it had 756,000 members and was adding 4,000 a day, claimed the organization's new president, Georgia farmer Charles Barrett, at the group's first national meeting.
What has the union done? a reporter asked.
"Why, we have raised the price of cotton so that it is being sold now for 11 cents. We have built warehouses all through the land down there, and we hold onto our cotton until we get the price we think is right," Barrett said.
In 1907, Barrett traveled to southeast Washington and spoke to farmers. According to the Walla Walla Evening Statesman, Barrett said farmers were generally "discordant, aimless and weak."
In the South, he said, farmers have banded together. "They are practically in control of the cotton market there now and this is as it should be," Barrett said.
Union membership was open to farmers, farm laborers, and rural mechanics, teachers, doctors and ministers. Even if they didn't live in the country, newspaper editors could join if they pledged to promote the union.
In 1908, the Pullman, Wash., Herald reported the union was "making wonderful growth" in the Palouse. "Hardly a farmer refuses to sign the application blank when the principles of the union are explained to him, and it is expected by harvest time practically all the farmers of this vicinity will belong," the Herald stated.
Barrett urged farmers to organize, like labor unions and business trusts. He scorned a federal program to give farmers seeds, calling it "graft, pure an simple."
"The custom is based upon the false assumption that the farmers can be controlled by a few seeds distributed by the government," Barrett said.
The New York Times applauded Barrett's "admirable statement," while confessing it had never before heard of the National Farmers Union.
By 1909, the union claimed 2 million members. The union listed its principles and the first two were: "to establish justice" and "to secure equity."
"The most striking feature of this great organization is the fact that its membership is made up of employers and employees," a labor newspaper in Everett commented.
The American Farm Bureau Federation was organized on a national level in 1919. The Farm Bureau asserted "the right of every American citizen to the free and unhampered privilege of disposing of his labor or products as he may individually desire."
The Farm Bureau urged the government to "suppress radicalism" and pledged to co-operate with the USDA and state agriculture departments.
In a 1922 speech in Pullman, Barrett "made a very vigorous attack on the Farm Bureau," the Herald reported. "Says That Farmers Must Organize and Join Farmers Union to Get Results," a headline stated.
Over the decades, the Farm Bureau grew, while the Farmers Union carried on as the left-leaning alternative. The union opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and more recently applauded the introduction of the Green New Deal.
Farmers Union President Roger Johnson has called it a "social justice-minded voice for the nation's farm families." The union says it represents about 181,000 farmers in 33 states. Washington, Oregon and Idaho are combined into the Northwest chapter.
Barrett retired as president in 1928. In a farewell, he said farmers didn't want special favors, just reasonable profits. The farmer also doesn't want his pocket picked by unfair laws, he said.
"About all the average farmer wants is just a plain square deal."