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Berrien, Van Buren provided MFB’s first three presidents

MFB’s first three presidents (from left): Benton Harbor’s Roland Morrill; James Nicol of South Haven; and Waldo Phillips from Decatur.
Date Posted: May 14, 2024

If you haven’t visited Michigan Farm Bureau’s revamped home office here on the west side of Lansing, you should come check it out. Also known as Farm Bureau Center, our headquarters here at 7373 West Saginaw Highway is as much yours as it is ours.

Executed during our extended pandemic “break,” the makeover wiped clean the slate of old meeting and conference-room names. Your new home office includes 15 rooms named after the organization’s first 15 presidents. 

And guess who gets to write blurbs for them? Here are the first three:

Roland Morrill — 1919-21

Michigan Farm Bureau’s first president, Roland Morrill, was a fruit-grower in Benton Township, Berrien County. 

Born in Coldwater in 1852, he moved to Berrien County as a young man, renting farmland until he could buy his own and eventually amassing an estate of 240 acres. Fervently active in local affairs, Morrill encouraged education, promoted business and advocated for uplifting Berrien County’s poor.

In the 1890s he served four years as director of the Michigan State Horticultural Society, and in February 1919 was among the 82 county Farm Bureau delegates who convened at Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) to launch the organization originally known as the Michigan State Farm Bureau.

Chosen temporary chairman at the outset, Morrill said, “It is up to each individual to do his part. We must all share in the burden.” By the next morning he had been elected the newborn organization’s first president. 

In his history of Michigan Farm Bureau, In the Service of the Farmer, Clark Brody remembers Morrill as an “able man” of “mature experience,” whose “counsel was a valuable stabilizing force.”

James Nicol — 1921-23 

Like his predecessor, the Michigan State Farm Bureau’s second president was a fruit grower from the southwestern Lower Peninsula. Van Buren County’s James Nicol of South Haven had served on the newborn organization’s executive board under Roland Morrill and chaired its buying and selling committee.

Described as “a leading fruit grower,” Nicol had a hand in developing and leading several early agricultural groups outside Farm Bureau, including the South Haven Fruit Exchange, Michigan Fruit Growers, Inc. and Michigan Elevator Exchange. He chaired the national fruit committee that organized the Federated Fruit Growers, Inc., then led its board of directors. 

Even so, his presidency began on wobbly footing, as the same annual delegate meeting that saw his ascendency also saw the functional dismissal of the organization’s first secretary, Charles Bingham. That turn of events set the stage for the near-rudderless organization’s most fortuitous move, when the executive committee secured as Bingham’s successor St. Clair County Agent Clark Brody. From that point forward, the state Farm Bureau’s fortunes were decisively improved, as Brody would prove a masterful ship’s pilot for the next 38 years. 

Nicol announced his retirement two years later, leaving the organization in a state much improved from how he found it, albeit mostly thanks to Brody. 

Waldo Phillips — 1923-24 

When Waldo E. Phillips of Decatur (Van Buren County) finally retired from the board of directors in December 1947, it marked the end of the longest tenure of any Michigan State Farm Bureau director. He was among the county delegates at the organization’s genesis in February 1919, was elected to the state board in 1921, then president in 1923. 

Details about his farm are slim, but a Paw Paw newspaper in August 1919 mentions it as a stop on an upcoming farm tour: “The route will start at the farm of Waldo Phillips of Hamilton Township. A fine new seeding of alfalfa is located here and an experiment of alfalfa seed production is being tried.”

Elsewhere the operation was described as “a 200-acre general and dairy farm.”

Better documented is Phillips’ extensive involvement in agricultural organizations, bringing to Farm Bureau more than 25 years’ experience as an officer of local and state-level cooperatives, including chairmanship of the Michigan Association of Farmer Co-operatives.

He was a director of the Michigan Elevator Exchange since its 1923 incorporation, and represented that organization on the MFB board under its early commodity-exchange representation plan.

While Phillips described his own retirement as merely “a return to the ranks,” his peer and fellow former president James Nicol was more generous: 

“Mr. Phillips has been an active and progressive Farm Bureau member from the beginning and we hope and know he always will be… Waldo Phillips is an example of long and unselfish loyalty to the spirit of cooperation and should be an inspiration to all of us, and especially to our Junior Members, who may thereby learn that high ideals and self-sacrifice for the common good are not a thing of the past. Good luck, Waldo, and be sure to come to our next meeting. We need your counsel.”

On deck: The MFB presidency ventures inland, with Jackson County dairyman Michael Noon, Melville McPherson of Kent County, and presumed shepherd Watson Billings of Genesee County.

Portrait of MFB Member Communications Specialist Jeremy Nagel.

Jeremy Nagel

Member Communications Specialist
517-323-6885 [email protected]