By Jeremy C. Nagel
The Michigan Farm Bureau family lost a lifelong leader Jan. 31 with the death of Livingston County’s Robert (Bob) Smith. He died peacefully Jan. 31, scarcely a month after his 101st birthday.
Born on his family’s farm near Fowlerville just 11 months after Michigan Farm Bureau was formed, Smith would go on to a lifetime of accomplished agricultural leadership and tireless service benefiting all Michigan farmers.
In his late teens Smith joined the Junior Farm Bureau, predecessor of today’s Young Farmer program. Rising through the organizational ranks, he went on to lead the Livingston County Farm Bureau before joining the state-level board of directors in the mid-1950s.
As MFB’s vice president at that decade’s end, Smith helped smooth the organization’s transition into the post-Clark Brody era. The career administrator who’d engineered Michigan Farm Bureau almost since its inception, Brody retired in 1959, creating a leadership vacuum his successor and the board struggled to fill.
Smith’s stabilizing influence found more traction in the 1960s when he came on staff as a legislative counsel alongside veteran Stanley Powell. Among his earliest achievements was updating the outmoded mentality that commanding rural influence alone was sufficient to advance Farm Bureau’s agenda.
“I knew I could get every vote in outstate Michigan,” Smith said, “but if I didn’t have some out of the Detroit metro area, we weren’t going to be successful.”
Where his predecessors were “opposing everything the cities wanted,” Smith saw the need for more inclusive cooperation.
“We had to change that around, and it was like a breath of fresh air to work with legislators from urban areas,” he said. “There were many times when we couldn’t have gotten legislation passed that farmers needed if it had not been for their support.”
Smith strove to undo the anti-city, anti-Democrat image Farm Bureau had earned, cultivating relationships with the Urban League, supplying seed for gardens in inner Detroit and supporting urban Democrats serving on agriculture committees.
By the mid-60s Smith was serving farmers’ interests by achieving significant tax-reform gains, including the 1966 elimination of taxes on all farm personal property.
“These gains … will no doubt be challenged year in and year out,” Smith said, “and farmers, through Farm Bureau, will have to continually justify them.”
MFB President Jack Laurie would later say Smith “saved Michigan farmers more money than any other single person in our history.”
The 1970s saw Smith playing key roles in developing and implementing both PA 116 — the Farmland & Open Space Preservation Act — and the Agricultural Marketing & Bargaining Act, PA 344, which was of vital importance to Farm Bureau affiliate MACMA, the Michigan Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Association.
Smith retired in 1989 after a lifetime serving Michigan farmers through the organization they launched the year of his own birth. In recent years current MFB Chief Operating Officer Scott Piggott often visited with the leader whose place in the Farm Bureau pantheon was fixed decades earlier.
“I was blessed to get to know Mr. Smith in recent years — he was sharp as a tack and shared many fun stories at his kitchen table,” Piggott said. “One that sticks in my head was a 1958 AFBF dinner, when he was vice president of Michigan Farm Bureau…
“Bob and the AFBF general counsel were joined by a senator who sat down as they were ordering. The senator listened, ate, then excused himself saying, ‘I like farmers and Farm Bureau, although my party doesn’t always agree … and I’m going to be the next President of the United States.’
“’And that,’ Bob said, ‘was my dinner with John F. Kennedy.’”
“His service was a catalyst for some of the most important policy wins in our organization’s history,” Piggott said. “Bob’s lifetime of service to the organization was truly a life spent in service of the farmer.
“Michigan agriculture owes Bob Smith a debt of gratitude.”
In the lead-up to MFB’s centennial celebration in 2019, Bob Smith sat for a generous on-camera interview. Click here to meet a Farm Bureau legend.