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Through the NFO, Minnesota farmers sought to use collective bargaining to fight corporatization of agriculture

Minnesota NFO and county chapters encouraged farm communities to support each other and challenge the farm-product pricing system.

image of farmers standing by truck with large NFO sign supporting collective bargaining
Photograph of a a National Farmers Organization checkpoint in Clontarf printed in the Benson Swift County News on August 25, 1964. The original caption included with the photograph reads, “A photo of an NFO checkpoint at the highway 9 curve in Clontarf. Checkpoints and picketing posts are spotted along major highways in this area and wherever the NFO meat withholding action is in force. Manning the checkpoint were Wesley Benham (left) and Walter Gades.”
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Minnesota farmers were active in building the National Farmers Organization (NFO), a populist farm group dedicated to strengthening family farmers’ economic well-being. Unlike other farm groups on both the right (the Farm Bureau) and the left (the Farmers’ Union), the NFO during the 1960s focused on direct economic action.

The rise of industrial agriculture in the mid-twentieth century pressured American farmers to give up family farming in favor of the agribusiness model. The farm population decreased as highly mechanized corporate farms replaced smaller operations.

Established in 1955 in response to these changes, the NFO was a “power-oriented social movement” that sought structural change and empowered small farmers to gain market power as a group. Minnesota NFO and county chapters encouraged farm communities to support each other and challenge the farm-product pricing system.

The NFO changed its focus from legislative action to collective bargaining in 1957. Large agribusiness interests opposed the NFO’s goals, instead emphasizing economies of scale and supporting price control by processors. NFO leaders believed that family farmers, more effectively than industrial farmers, could “care for their land, for each other, and for their nation.”

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Through farm strikes, called holding actions, the NFO pursued collective bargaining between farmers and processors for such products as livestock, grain, and milk. When the organization voted to stage a holding action, farmers across the country stopped shipping the designated product or products.

Like labor-movement strikes, holding actions involved confrontation between farmers in solidarity with the NFO and those opposing its approach. To NFO members, farmers who sold products during a holding action threatened the movement’s potential to collectively achieve long-term price increases. Some opponents saw the actions as radical and interfering with individual freedom. The conflicting sides became polarized.

In 1959, the Minnesota NFO became one of the group’s first nine state charters. Local NFO groups used multiple strategies to build the movement. Minnesota’s county chapters, for example, negotiated contracts with processors. Farms displayed “LET’S GO! N.F.O.–COLLECTIVE BARGAINING” signs. To draw attention to issues, members organized protests, such as dumping large quantities of milk onto the ground.

Minnesota emerged as a major NFO stronghold by 1964, when a national convention took place in Minneapolis. In that year, NFO members from six northern Minnesota counties donated hay to members in four drought-stricken counties in the southeastern part of the state.

Granite Falls was one of the first American cities to back the NFO as a united front. Citizens and businesses supported the organization with a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored rally. Signs welcomed the NFO in windows throughout the town. This support was reciprocated on September 27, when between two and three thousand people came to Granite Falls for an NFO-organized “winter buying” day.

Holding action conflicts intensified. NFO members and their allies blocked Highway 12 near DeGraff on Labor Day, preventing eleven cattle trucks from traveling to South St. Paul. On September 24, thirty-five NFO trucks clogged the South St. Paul stockyards’ hog chutes for several hours. These events were part of a forty-three-day national holding action in twenty-three states.

Across the state that autumn, both NFO members and their opponents reported intimidating actions: shots fired, fences cut, and fires apparently set. Strikebreaking trucks’ tires were flattened and windows were broken. While no serious injuries on either side resulted from incidents in Minnesota, two NFO members in Wisconsin were killed when a cattle-truck driver ran over them as they attempted to stop him from entering a stockyard.

After the Wisconsin deaths, the Minnesota highway patrol and county sheriffs began providing escorts to trucks shipping livestock in opposition to the holding action. Governor Karl Rolvaag approved the escorts but declined to call out the National Guard as NFO opponents had requested. Rolvaag supported the NFO as “a search by farm people to secure for themselves their just and fair share of the fruits of their labor” but became concerned about intensifying confrontations.

Beginning in 1967, the NFO’s opponents initiated legal actions alleging that the group constituted a monopoly. Though the NFO eventually prevailed in court, receiving a $21.4 million settlement in 1990, its community-organizing momentum was disrupted. In the 1970s, the NFO shifted its focus away from challenging the agricultural power structure. Renamed National Farmers, the group remains active across the country in the 2000s, primarily in farm-product marketing.

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