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Farmer-labor collaborations before the DFL: Meet the Minnesota Farmers’ Alliance

An 1890 union between the Alliance and labor groups yielded several successful political candidacies.

farmers alliance campaign poster
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Political poster depicting Sidney M. Owen, the
Farmers’ Alliance candidate for governor, 1890

The Farmers’ Alliance in Minnesota thrived from 1886 to 1892. During this time, the organization achieved the most progress toward its political goals in the state. These included greater regulation of the railroad industry as it impacted the wheat market, elimination of irregularities in the grading of wheat, and minimization or elimination of the middleman in the wheat trade.

The origins of the Farmers’ Alliance are unclear. Although it had national reach, the organization was never centralized or unified. Instead, it consisted of many local chapters that shared a desire for agricultural and social reform. Farmers’ Alliance chapters began as social, educational gatherings of rural men and women. But they quickly took on a more political character, as members agreed that political action was the most effective way to create change.

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In the 1880s, farmers in Minnesota were unhappy for many reasons. They were struggling financially, due to an oversupply of wheat and low wheat prices. Many were deeply in debt. Farmers wanted a higher share of the price their grain brought at its final sale, after it was graded, marketed, and shipped to distribution centers. In addition, railroad freights to transport wheat were expensive and often discriminatory to rural markets. And farmers could only sell and store their grain in certain places, which led to lack of competition and unfair wheat grading and pricing. Minnesota Farmers’ Alliance members wanted all of these issues addressed through regulation and reform.

The state’s first Farmers’ Alliance groups were formed in 1881. An annual convention was held that year in Rochester, but it was only lightly attended. Membership numbers increased each year, however, and by 1886, the state’s annual convention, held in St. Paul, was quite large and attracted attention from the press and the public alike.

Also in 1886, the Farmers’ Alliance in Minnesota began to enter politics in a significant way. The group first chose to work with existing political parties, instead of fielding its own political candidates. In 1886, state Republicans and Democrats agreed to incorporate issues of importance to the Farmers’ Alliance into their party platforms. In 1887, members of the state legislature presented bills favorable to farmers: for state inspection of county elevators, regulation of grain warehouses, and reduction of the rate of interest from ten to eight percent on loans. The most significant gain of 1887, however, was the strengthening of the regulatory powers of the state railroad and warehouse commission, which directly addressed the concerns of many Minnesota farmers.

In 1888, the Alliance took some time to regroup politically, and in 1889, it elected Ignatius Donnelly as State Lecturer. The State Lecturer was in charge of recruiting new members, and with Donnelly in the position, Minnesota membership numbers soared. With numbers came influence, and in 1890, the Alliance decided to try politics again, this time directly. They connected with labor groups that shared their goals, such as the Knights of Labor, and put forth a number of candidates for both Minnesota and national office, including Sidney M. Owen for governor. Owen, editor of the agricultural journalFarm, Stock and Home, polled well but lost to incumbent governor William Merriam. A significant number of other Alliance candidates were elected, however, including two congressmen.

Under the leadership of Alliance legislators such as Donnelly, who was elected to the state senate, many bills relating to farmers’ issues were presented during the 1891 legislative session. However, few bills were passed. Dissatisfaction with this lack of progress led to a split in the Alliance in 1892, with a large faction, Donnelly included, going over to the People’s (or Populist) Party, which had many of the same concerns and goals. A small faction of the original Alliance remained but never again had a significant political impact on the state.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.