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Michigan Farm Bureau Family of Companies

Elton Smith raised the bar, then soared well beyond

Kent County dairyman Elton R. Smith embodied a new standard for Farm Bureau leadership — a standard by which members to this day are still measured.
Date Posted: July 10, 2024

Michigan Farm Bureau’s longest-serving president is also its most celebrated, first for steadying the organization through the greatest challenges of its first century, then for inspiring and leading it to new heights.

Elton R. Smith — 1964-86 

From his modest dairy farm near Caledonia, Kent County’s Elton R. Smith rose from his Farm Bureau Community Group to the organization’s highest levels. Along the way he would redefine Farm Bureau leadership itself and elevate the stature of his role unlike any of his predecessors.

Small in stature but “10 feet tall” atop the bedrock of Farm Bureau policy and philosophy, Smith’s rise began as a new member in 1943. His Community Group involvement led to county Farm Bureau positions and then the state board in 1956. 

He was elected vice president in 1963, as then-president Walter Wightman’s zealous anti-communism was tainting the organization and straying its image away from the farm.

“These anti-communist activities moved Farm Bureau way over to the right,” Smith remembered. “It just wasn’t a healthy situation for a farm organization.”

Within a year Smith was being urged by his peers on the board to challenge Wightman, and after the 1964 annual meeting, they made their own wish come true by choosing him as the MFB’s next leader.

Smith’s leadership style hinged on his ability to make others feel important whenever their paths crossed. That component of his talent came in handy — and got plenty of exercise — as he set about healing a battered organization struggling for stability after the turmoil of his predecessor’s administration.

Among his first orders of business was to slow — then reverse — the downward trend in membership recruitment. Between a re-energized field staff and a competitive challenge from neighboring Ohio, Michigan’s membership numbers rebounded within a few years.

Those early years also saw gains in organizational programming. The Community Farm Bureau program that was Smith’s entrée was the envy of state Farm Bureaus across the country. The Women’s Program surged forward under new leadership, carding wins with safety programming, a popular member cookbook and its innovative Washington Legislative Seminar.

Leadership development got a boost when the Farm Bureau Young People program upgraded its name to Young Farmers — a small change that made a big difference. 

“When they changed to Young Farmers and ‘went professional,’ that really made Farm Bureau,” Smith said. “Leadership development is what it’s all about.”

“The emphasis on young farmer programs was one of his top priorities,” said Vice President Dean Pridgeon. “Elton had a real concern that if we didn’t get young farmers involved, the organization would age itself out of any real value to its members and to the industry.”

Similarly, MSU Extension Director Gordon Guyer lauded Smith as a creative, forward-thinking leader.

“He saw that if he didn’t get young people into the organization, agriculture and Farm Bureau were dead ducks,” Guyer said. “That’s been the big difference between Farm Bureau and all the other organizations that never got off dead center because they had no young people, no women involved, no leadership programs.”

Under Smith, MFB and its affiliates were again firing on all cylinders. Farmers Petroleum, the insurance companies and MACMA were all prospering. Farm Bureau Services was going strong with a new egg marketing division, merger with longtime partner Michigan Elevator Exchange, and a major new bean and grain terminal on the Saginaw River.

From those heights, though, it was a long way down.

In the early 1970’s a labelling error at a third-party source plant resulted in toxic fire retardant accidentally being mixed into Farm Bureau Services’ livestock feed. Members fed unknowingly tainted feed to thousands of animals that eventually had to be depopulated and disposed of in landfills. 

The results were catastrophic for Farm Bureau Services and its parent company. MFB saw membership decline, a badly tarnished public image and eventually had to sell off its oldest affiliate.

From that low ebb, Smith’s leadership broke new ground righting the ship and rebuilding Michigan Farm Bureau’s bruised stature. 

What ground the company lost in dealing tangible goods, it regained in the political arena with the late-70’s formation of AgriPAC and major legislative wins with PA-344, the Agricultural Marketing & Bargaining Act, and PA-116, the Farmland & Open Space Preservation Act.

Smith’s political savvy even made MFB a friend in the White House. As a young congressional candidate in 1948, Gerald Ford had visited Smith’s South Kent Community Group to learn about farm issues. The meeting forged a permanent connection with Michigan farmers that was never severed. 

Hailed as “one of our own,” Ford credited Smith’s Community Group with helping him become “a fair and effective spokesman for the unsung hero of our economy, the American farmer.”

The next decade saw Smith take his talents to the highest level.

At AFBF’s 1982 annual meeting he was elected to the national organization’s vice presidency, putting him second in command of the country’s largest and most influential farm organization. It made him the ultimate example of the leader-building acumen he’d brought with him from Caledonia, embodying the philosophy best summarized in his own words to new county leaders back in 1965:

"I would hope none of you look on your new position simply as a ‘seat of honor’ and that alone. Actually, you face a high responsibility to build your county Farm Bureau and its programs. You have been placed into one of the most responsible jobs in Michigan.

"It is no thumb-twiddling position. There are hundreds of millions of dollars of farm resources involved and hundreds of farm families to be represented, served and protected by the action you take. You should accept the fact that you are ‘on the spot.’ You will be faced with important decisions and the need for action in matters vital to the interests of Farm Bureau members in your county.

"As a Farm Bureau leader, I have found my responsibilities to be both sobering and rewarding. It is a ‘school of hard knocks’ but, while the going is often rugged, the things I learn stand me in good stead. If the organization grows, you grow with it."

In the fall of 1986, Smith announced he would step down at the close of the December annual meeting. Aged 75, the leader Farm Bureau built — and who dedicated himself to returning the favor — stepped away from the organization he humbly deemed “in good shape,” initiating a victory lap unlike any since Clark Brody’s retirement.

Michigan’s was the top state Farm Bureau in the nation — resurrected from tragedy a decade prior to heights of credibility and influence unlike it’d ever previously attained. Praise for Smith poured in from every corner of the industry and those who made careers monitoring it.

Michigan Farm Radio President Bob Driscoll reported from 1986 annual meeting in Grand Rapids:

"Welsh Auditorium was filled to capacity and as the speakers delivered their tributes, it was obvious we all had one thing in common and were all reflecting on that: Elton Smith has provided dynamic leadership for our industry. He has been a true and loyal friend to thousands. More important, he has been a patient teacher. 

"The common point was the fact that nearly everybody in that audience had, at some time in their lives, been lucky enough to have been his student."

 

Portrait of MFB Member Communications Specialist Jeremy Nagel.

Jeremy Nagel

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

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