Our HistoryNorth Dakota Farmers Union
North Dakota Farmers Union History
A proud heritage
North Dakota Farmers Union was established in 1927 around the principles of cooperation, legislation and education. The organization received its national charter on Nov. 4, 1927, at its first convention in Jamestown. With a record 13,000 farmers, NDFU had the largest membership at that time among the 31 states in which Farmers Union was active. Charles Talbott, a chief organizer and passionate believer in the power of Farmers Union to counteract economic injustice, was elected first president.
The farm movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries fostered cooperatives as a solution to the economic plight of farmers, educating them on cooperative principles and the basics of working together. Cooperatives in North Dakota began essentially as buying clubs in which farmers saved money by pooling their order to buy staples such as twine, coffee, salt and coal. From this group effort, the understanding and experience in cooperative purchasing and marketing developed into Farmers Union oil and elevator companies.
Charles Talbott knew that cooperatives would need their own wholesale supply cooperative to provide oil companies with the products they needed, such as petroleum. In 1931, he helped establish the Farmers Union Central Exchange (now CHS Inc.) in St. Paul, serving as its first president.
At the same time, hundreds of Farmers Union cooperative elevators were organized across North Dakota to market grain through the Farmers Union Grain Terminal Association (GTA), which later became Harvest States Cooperatives and then merged with Cenex to become CHS Cooperatives, and eventually CHS Inc. By 1940, the GTA terminal elevator was the largest grain receiving organization in the world. North Dakota farmers contributed 53% of its entire volume. In 1943, GTA had 236 affiliated elevators in North Dakota.
Today, CHS is one of the largest co-ops in the world and a major exporter of agricultural commodities.
North Dakota Farmers Union can trace its legislative roots back to the Farm Storage Act of 1929, which was the first piece of legislation sponsored by Farmers Union. The North Dakota bill, drawn up by Usher Burdick, allowed that farm grainaries could be eligible as public warehouses. The legislation was signed into law by Gov. George F. Schafer while NDFU president Charlie Talbott looked on.
From its earliest days, NDFU has been a successful advocacy organization for farm families. In November 1933, a delegation of NDFU members traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for Missouri River diversion to bring water to farms all across the state. “If it is possible for us to solve this problem, we will do it,” responded President Roosevelt.
Another milestone in NDFU legislative history involves corporate farming, an issue that repeatedly rears its head in North Dakota. In 1932, NDFU won support for an initiated measure it placed on the ballot that prohibited corporations from owning farmland. It passed with a 56 percent vote margin. At that time, corporations and government agencies owned nearly 20,000 farms, one-fourth the total in North Dakota. The law required them to dispose of the land by 1941. A last-minute challenge by corporate interest drew 5,000 farmers to Bismarck to help defeat the challenge. The law was upheld. NDFU would fight this same fight again during the summer of 1968. After vigorous campaigning throughout the summer, the anti-corporate farming forces won the election 171,321 to 53,935. This principle would be upheld again in 1979. In 2015, NDFU successful referred legislation that would open up the state to corporate dairy and swine operations.
It was in 1948 that NDFU pioneered the idea of bringing members to D.C. to speak for themselves in front of members of Congress. To qualify for the trip, members had to sell 75 new memberships. The bus was full. Thus began an era of bus-ins. In May 1965, the bus-ins would change to fly-ins when a group of North Dakota leaders chartered an aircraft to lobby on the farm bill.
Another historical milestone occurred in March 2000, when NDFU transported seven busloads of North Dakotans to the nation’s capital for the Rally for Rural America. They joined nearly 4,000 farmers on Capitol Hill from more than 40 states, the largest gathering of farmers ever in Washington, D.C.
North Dakota Farmers Union has made the education of members a priority since the founding of the organization. With established programs for both young and old, the organization has used a variety of mediums to get news out to members throughout history. In 1931, NDFU began a weekly, Monday-night radio program on KFYR Radio of Bismarck that reached nearly every farm home in the state.
1933 marked the first year for print media for the organization. Although the first publication of the Union Farmer wasn’t published until 1934, NDFU’s first songbook was published in 1933. The songs emphasized Farmers Union themes and were set to music. With the introduction of television to North Dakota in the mid-1950s, NDFU discovered a new way to reach members. In 1957, they aired their first 10-minute, weekly television program, “Focus on the News.”
Education has always been more than just information sharing; it’s about bringing together a community to learn from one another. In the mid-1930s, Famers Union local meetings became weekly occasions to bring the community together. Locals were originally organized by township, but as members became more spread out they became organized by county. Many of the local traditions are still present through county picnics, day classes and camps. In the early years, annual events such as the winter conference, the county leaders conference, and ladies camp were used to help members develop leadership skills. Members learned and mastered public speaking, debate, parliamentary procedure, and other skills at these events.
Gladys Talbott Edwards was the founder of the youth program and became the first director of education in 1937. Ninety-eight teenagers, ages 14 to 21, attended the first youth camp held in 1934 at Camp Rokiwan on the shores of Spiritwood Lake. Youth participated in classes, crafts, swimming, singing, campfires and folk dancing. The camp was such a success that the next year they held three camps, bringing in more than 300 campers from across the state. The second year of camp marked the first year that the camp co-op store was established.
In 1935, NDFU’s Lulu Evanson led a successful fight to establish a statewide high school correspondence study program for rural youth that couldn’t attend high school because of the distance from home. It also allowed handicapped students and adults to receive their high school diplomas. By 1949, 66,000 people were able to continue their education and earn diplomas.
The first collegiate chapters were established in 1937 on the campus of North Dakota State University, Minot State University and Valley City State University as a way for young farm people to stay connected while in college. Collegiate chapters still exist today.