Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The National Farmers Union (officially the Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union of America) originated in Point, Texas, in 1902. Farmers Union members saw themselves as continuing earlier efforts by the Farmers Alliance, the Populist Party, and the greenback and free silver movements to minimize the power of monopolies and enhance opportunities for small family farmers to achieve social and economic equality in the United States. The organization spread throughout various regions of the nation, but by the end of World War II was most firmly established in the Great Plains, with its most active affiliates in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana, and the Dakotas.

The Farmers Union has consistently argued that U.S. government policies often contribute to an unholy alliance between big business and government, which leads to corporate domination of U.S. society. It has opposed protective tariffs as favoring large business enterprises and, in the field of agriculture, has criticized the American Farm Bureau Federation as an arm of the National Association of Manufacturers. The Farmers Union's rejection of a survival of the fittest approach to economic life led it to support the 1949 Brannan Plan calling for agricultural prices to seek their own levels in the marketplace while allowing government supports for smaller producers when prices fell below what was considered a fair return. The Farmers Union's concern for equity also led the organization to cooperate closely with organized labor, particularly in its opposition to the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and its support for the 1946 Full Employment Act.

More than any other general farm organization, the Farmers Union paid particularly close attention to links between domestic and foreign policy, and it especially criticized U.S. policies abroad in the early years of the cold war. The Union claimed that the actions of the Truman administration, particularly the Marshall Plan to revitalize postwar Europe, contributed to the decline of the small family farmer by helping generate what it termed artificial scarcity at home. The Farmers Union hoped that the United States would move toward a foreign policy stressing, as it believed President Roosevelt had, international cooperation over military and economic competition. The Union's position on U.S. foreign policy generated accusations that the organization sympathized with communists, and the State Department and the House Un-American Activities Committee both kept a close watch on the activities of various Farmers Union spokesmen. Such scrutiny during the height of McCarthyism led to occasional rifts between the national organization and its various state and regional affiliates, a few of which, because of their exceptionally vocal criticism of U.S. policy, were eventually expelled from the Farmers Union.

Despite its outspoken views and its occasionally raucous history, the National Farmers Union still exists. With headquarters in both Washington dc and Denver, Colorado, an announced membership of 300,000 farm and ranch families, and a Web site, the Farmers Union still promotes the contributions rural America can make to a healthy U.S. society.

Bruce E. Field Northern Illnois University

Field, Bruce E. Harvest of Dissent: The National Farmers Union and the Early Cold War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Flamm, Michael W. "The National Farmers Union and the Evolution of Agrarian Liberalism, 1937–1946." Agricultural History 68 (1994): 54–80.

Pratt, William C. "The Farmers Union, McCarthyism, and the Demise of the Agrarian Left." Historian 58 (1996): 329–42.

Previous: National Congress of American Indians | Contents | Next: Nonpartisan League

XML: egp.pd.038.xml