For 100 years the Tulare County Farm Bureau has been assisting local farmers. Some facts and artifacts about just what the Bureau has been doing for those 100 years is now on display at the Tulare County Historical Museum in the Farm, Labor and Agriculture building. It is just one segment of the Bureau’s events celebrating its centennial year.
Through the work of Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Farm Bureau, Shirley Kirkpatrick, a longtime member and former Farm Bureau newspaper editor, and Amy King, curator of the museum, the exhibit reveals photographs and memories of the decades of the Bureau’s work.
The Early Years
Forming a farm bureau was a necessary facet of attracting a farm advisor for the county. In 1915, the Visalia Board of Trade started organizing to that end, and two years later, 850 farmers were signed up. Dues at the time were $1 per year.
“If you got a farm advisor, that meant you would get someone with a college-level education that could help farmers raise better crops and deal with disease and pest concerns,” Stever Blattler said. “You could teach rural families how to preserve food and you could teach home economics. Livestock could receive vaccinations and hoof care, and things that would prolong their life and make them healthier livestock.”
“Economic vitality was always the reason as to why a county would want a farm advisor,” she added.
In 1922, the dues were raised to $10/year. Advisory committees were formed, as well as organizational and publicity committees.
Livestock Market Boosted Membership
The high water mark was in the 1950’s and ‘60s with an overall high of about 4,500 members, countywide.
“Part of that was because membership was required to sell at the livestock market – so if you came into sell one pig, you had to have a Farm Bureau membership,” Stever Blattler said. “Apparently there were some issues with that being a monopolized system, and monopoly laws and anti-trade laws caused this to stop occurring in the ‘60s. So membership could no longer be mandated to participate in a livestock market sale.”
The market location, she said, dates back to the ‘30s and ‘40s revealed through early photographs of the yard. The actual Farm Bureau location was not purchased until 1956, when a new office was built next to the stockyards. Prior to that, the Bureau operated out of a downtown Visalia adobe building leased from the city.
The sale yard had a diversity of use back in the ‘50s and ‘60s with all types of livestock sold. Today, Stever Blattler said, it is mostly utilized as a cattlemen’s market with a sale there every Wednesday.
Its location, she said, was a result of being close to the railroad for transportation of livestock. The sales yard along with the building are owned by the Farm Bureau. However, the yard has been leased and managed by an independent auctioneer, Visalia Livestock Market, since the early ‘90s.
Politics and Social Venues
The Bureau has also served as a social network for farmers and their families. Events were designed to draw rural farm bureau members into the centers and still are today.
“We still do a lot of things that are focused around the family,” she said, “and dealing with the older generation and younger generation.”
Through the years, Farm Bureau women have served on various committees and met with local politicians as well as California’s Governor.
“In the ‘30s and ‘40s women played very active roles in public outreach and meeting with high-level officials,” Stever Blattler said. “And people tend to dismiss, ‘ah well, they were just there to discuss home economics,’ but no, these women were engaged in political activity. They were talking about legislation – they were talking about farm issues.
“And there have been at least two, probably more, but at least two, very long-term women managers of this Farm Bureau,” she said.
Sarah Smith was there for about 48 years total, and Lorena Johnson worked for 20 or 25 years total over two different stints, Stever Blattler said. Stever Blattler, herself, has served the Farm Bureau as director for 10 years, to date.
In the ‘70s, the Farm Bureau took on more advocacy roles, she said, including the Rural Valley Lands Plan – still used today to evaluate land conversion.
In the ‘80s came the need to become more involved in the education of youth, she said. Starting in 1983, the Youth Leadership program was formed for high school students. It is now an 8-9 month program for high school juniors.
“We hope it will help form their decision-making about Ag careers, whether or not they may come back to the community and work in an agricultural career sector,” she said. “We want it to be in front of their senior year so they can consider what colleges they may want to apply to.”
College tours to UC Davis, Cal Poly and Fresno State are included in the program.
In the ‘90s, the Farm Bureau continued in its role of advocacy for farmers. And, the last two decades, Stever Blattler said, have been devoted to advocacy and outreach programs. The Farm Bureau wants the public to be aware of the needs of the farmers including water allocation, proper siting of electrical lines, and making sure habitat conservation is not taking away property rights from farmland owners.
Early Farm Bureau board minutes reveal like issues from 100 years ago and today.
“Famers were chasing the best pricing for their commodities and their livestock, which is why we started the yards. We were trying to secure health care for the local communities,” Stever Blattler said. “We were trying to make sure there was as little government intrusion into their lives and regulations on their businesses. And, those are still the dilemmas of today – we’re still fighting regulation and government overreach, and how do we make services available in rural communities and keep health care costs affordable for families. And water – water was just as much a fight and a battle 100 years ago as it is now.”
Included in the exhibit are former special awards, signage, trophies and plaques.
On display are some brass bells, or gongs, that were membership awards from the American Farm Bureau in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
Bringing out all the memorabilia was fun, Stever Blattler said. Kirkpatrick was a huge help, she said. She pulled together stories and news from different decades. Kirkpatrick has also been writing an historical column for the Farm Bureau paper this centennial year.
Other projects and events this year included the revealing of a mural at the office, painted by local artist Colleen Mitchell-Venja, with a mural display event held in May.
The top 10 Ag commodities are depicted in the mural.
Another local artist, Jana Botkin, produced a coloring book for the Farm Bureau this year, currently available through the Farm Bureau office.
The celebration will wrap up in November with a centennial gala/dinner with all members being invited.
The museum exhibit will remain on display through the end of the year.
Currently Farm Bureau membership is approximately 1,700, with about 90% being actual farmers and ranchers, and the remain 10% being associated businesses, Stever Blattler said.