Discussion topics aim to pose questions, not answer them, but that doesn’t make them easier to write, especially when your livelihood is linked to the topic at hand. The central question here is so vital to Farm Bureau’s future, if I had all the answers, I’d be king.
This one was a challenge to compose and does not follow the usual format. Structurally it’s a sort of a collage — a clutter of snapshots instead of one big mural.
Cold & Clinical
The term itself means different things to different segments of our organization. Generally ‘grass roots’ refers to the lowest level of a hierarchy — the masses, the rank-n-file, the everyday all-of-us, ‘We the People.’
Topping Farm Bureau’s hierarchy is the national organization, the American Farm Bureau Federation, based in D.C. The next level ‘down’ are your state-level Farm Bureaus, of which (trust me) Michigan’s is among the best. (Not bragging; common knowledge.)
Next come our 65 county-level Farm Bureaus. It’s important to note the counties came first; they created your state-level Michigan Farm Bureau in 1919.
That was a grassroots move.
‘Below’ or ‘under’ the county level it gets complicated, but for four mighty decades starting with the 1940s, the next level of our hierarchy was dominated by a thousand-plus Community Farm Bureaus, also known as Community Groups, then Community Action Groups.
Launched in 1936, the program was the brainchild of two state-level staffers in Lansing.
That was not a grassroots move, but it worked, and when Blue Cross availability was tied to CAG involvement, it exploded. Four decades later that link was severed, beginning the decline that continues to this day.
When I joined the staff almost 20 years ago, our then-new membership database bore the rosters of fewer than 90 remaining groups. Of those, at least 20 have been confirmed as active through direct personal contact and meeting attendance since 2017.
One of them is the Golden Fawn CAG in Huron County — eastern Huron County to be precise — where the sun rises first…
Vernors & Ice Cream
It’s been several months now since the Golden Fawn group dropped this stick of TNT in our suggestion box:
“What is happening to the grass roots of Farm Bureau? It seems like we are getting farther from that all the time…”
Instantly I knew this deserved special treatment and regret it’s taken me so long, but today I’m confident my slow pace has been forgiven. There was something very reassuring in the icy glass of Vernors Larry brought me, and in Bonnie’s ice cream cake. (That’ll make sense soon.)
For “special treatment” I needed a better understanding where Golden Fawn was coming from. Unable to make one of their recent regular meetings, our field staffer in the Thumb scheduled a simple sit-down with one or two of its members — or so we thought.
What we got instead was an impromptu gathering of the entire Golden Fawn Community Action Group: a beautiful and flattering gesture we strove to make the most of. Most of them are cousins, with sturdy surnames like Buchholz, Holdwick, Roggenbuck, Siemen and Tenbusch. Our hosts were Bonnie and Larry Siemen, whose place is tucked up in the northwest corner of Sand Beach Township, not far outside Harbor Beach.
Instead of a simple sit-down we got hours of warm and far-ranging conversation, then a soulful meal — including the ice cream cake I’m still thinking about.
Fizzled, Booted & Flopped
The meager notes I brought home that evening include a mix of their words and my own, but the theme is the same: disconnected, unheard, silenced, voiceless, cut-off, adrift, isolated…
I’ve attended enough CAG meetings to know this feeling of detachment and isolation, from both the state and county Farm Bureaus, is commonplace if not universal.
Did Farm Bureau stop listening? Did we stop tending the grass roots? There is some evidence:
You once received quarterly video newsletters — “Rural Spotlight” — and when I mentioned them to the Golden Fawn group their faces lit up like Christmas trees. CAGs loved Rural Spotlight. MFB discontinued it.
The program’s regular newsletter, The Loop, fizzled down to an emailed PDF. These discussion topics were booted years ago from pages of Michigan Farm News.
When and why did the organization tune out the chatter Community Groups once consistently sent up the hierarchy to their county Farm Bureau and the state? When I started working with CAGs in 2017, nobody really knew where their feedback went, who read it or how (if at all) it was used.
We tried reviving an online home for discussion topics and it flopped, so in the summer of 2019 we rebooted a printed newsletter. After years of neglect it seemed the least we could do.
That was MFB’s centennial year and with it came a freshening breeze of optimism, suggesting our next hundred years could only benefit from a 21st century update to the Community Farm Bureau concept.
That concept hasn’t taken shape yet — but should it? And where should it come from? Should it come from the top down like it did in 1936? Or should it be, you know, grassroots?
“There’s not a single farmer on the township board anymore.”
Decades ago it was the other way around, and the demography behind that isn’t hard to figure out: Lakeside residences have squeezed in cheek-by-jowl while the numbers of inland residents working the soil has declined dramatically.
Even if every remaining farmer in Sand Beach Township was keen to pack the township hall on an issue, they’d still be overwhelmingly outnumbered.
Are the farmers less involved or are there just fewer of them? More to come on our changing world…
The conversation in Bonnie and Larry’s living room took a detour into communication preferences — how they, we, or anyone prefer to be informed about what’s going on.
Bucking the ageist stereotype that seniors aren’t plugged in and online, they all had their smartphones within arm’s reach. It might not be their first choice from the deep roster of information sources, but they’re not living in a technological cave, either.
At the other end of the communications spectrum we talked about the decline of newspapers. The closest daily isn’t highly regarded, but the weekly Minden City Herald (not far south) they say is doing well under attentive newish ownership — a rare example nowadays of a healthy rural paper defying the odds stacked against it.
Yes, the world bears little resemblance to back when blah blah blah…
It also doesn’t take all day to get across the county, and there’s a device in your pocket with up-to-the-minute market prices. That device connects you well with “the outside world,” but the world closer to home is a different story.
Try using your smartphone to read the minutes of your last township planning commission hearing, or your county road commission. It won’t explain the drain commissioner’s decisions, pull you from the mud or have your back in a bar fight.
For that stuff you need people — preferably a network of them — and the more local those folks are the better.
Hmm… <snaps fingers, rubs chin> If only there was a local network of like-minded peers at your fingertips…
My Golden Fawn notes contain only two snippets about those darn kids: “Young people have different values” and “We need the 20- to 25-year-olds to speak up.”
Try scrolling more than three inches down your news feed without seeing a headline about how much — or how little — Millennials and Gen Z have in common with you. (Click at your own risk; it gets ugly.)
Consider all the reasons not to get involved and it’s amazing any Farm Bureau work ever gets done. Go on “Shark Tank” and pitch a business model based on volunteerism. Expecting people to do stuff without getting paid is practically un-American. Ask them to squeeze committee and board meetings into their personal schedules between the jobs they do get paid for, and time with family, friends, church, mowing the grass and watching “Shark Tank” reruns.
You’ll hear “I’m too busy,” and you’ll hear it often.
I never really bought that until, years ago, one of our Young Farmer leaders took me to school and explained it like I was, well, one of his kids. I said something dumb like, “I don’t think young parents today are any busier than their parents or grandparents were at the same age or stage in their lives.”
Whoever it was who set me straight did a great job explaining how wrong I was. The two key words were 'kids' and 'sports,' which today means a whole spectrum of time-gobbling after-school extracurriculars that have young parents taxiing their brood all over creation for hours after the school bell rings.
I got a lesson alright, and it only made Farm Bureau involvement more incomprehensible than ever.
The first section is called ‘Cold & Clinical’ because of all the hierarchy, history, numbers and the hard line between what technically is and isn’t grassroots. Hopefully someone mumbled, “Life’s not like that, Jeremy. It’s messy.”
Between the outlying extremes of any bell curve are the masses, the rank-n-file, the everyday all-of-us. And between the extremes of black and white is an ocean of grey on which the vast majority of us float.
Today’s world bears little resemblance to the Great Depression, when CAGs were invented, nor the Cold War era in which they prospered. The number of American farms has plummeted from seven to two million, and with it the number of farmers.
That’s a lot fewer roots, people.
So again: “What is happening to the grass roots of Farm Bureau?”
A Cold & Clinical stickler would turn it right back to you — “Look around the room. You tell us.” — and that’s fair…to a point.
The grass roots of Farm Bureau are changing with the times — adapting and moving forward as best they can, just like they always have. Its needs and priorities are changing. Gee, who saw that coming?
Thing is, though, the closer you really get to Farm Bureau’s grass roots, the less clinical things are. At that down-to-earth, human level we’re talking about neighbors who’ll pull you from the mud and take in some of your cows if your barn burns. They ask about your kids with a firm handshake, share your losses with a hug, and bring you an icy glass of Vernors, even if they just met you.
It’s a beautiful family, generous and genuine. They’re concerned with each other’s well-being and they’ve got your back.
Does Farm Bureau have their back? We like to think so, and your staff would bristle at any suggestion to the contrary. I’ve worked with these people going on 20 years now. My little sedan can’t pull your planter from the mud and there isn’t room in my back yard for more than a couple Holsteins, but we’ll figure something out.
We can bicker all day about grassroots moves vs top-down moves — and it might get lively — but at the end of that day I hope we’re all smart enough (and humble enough) to see we’re all adrift on the same grey ocean.
Your county, regional and state Farm Bureau staff all work for you, and with you. Only together can we develop a “21st century update to the Community Farm Bureau concept” that achieves some familiar goals, but you know darn well it ain’t gonna look the same.
We need each other, and MFB respecting the autonomy of the county Farm Bureau doesn’t mean some Home Office staffer’s bright idea won’t work.
It just might be the next Community Action Group.
Click here to check out the CAG program podcast, The Block Party. The episode for the June discussion topic will be posted June 1.
What barriers limit Farm Bureau members — the organization’s grass roots — from being more involved, and how might those barriers be overcome?
What more or different services could your county or state Farm Bureau offer to better support existing Community Action Groups and encourage new ones to form?
If CAGs as we’ve known them were to become extinct, what enduring legacy would be left behind to inspire and motivate future generations to try their hand at something similar?
CAG members share bonds so close they’re practically family — bonds largely responsible for the Farm Bureau family being so tightly knit. How else might such closeness and camaraderie be forged?
Respond via email to [email protected] or post: MFB Community Group Discussion Topic Responses, ATTN: Ashley Frazee, 7373 W. Saginaw Hwy., Lansing, MI 48917. Please include your name and CAG affiliation.