Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

Merced County Farmers Organized 100 years ago

Merced County farmers made 1917 a watershed year when they teamed up to work together to improve agriculture countywide.

With the assistance of a farm adviser from the Ag Extension, they significantly increased their crop production; with the forming of Merced County Farm Bureau, they were able to advance their political and economic agenda collectively, which they would not have been able to achieve through individual action.

Ag Extension Service was established by the Smith-Lever Act, a federal law, in 1914 to address rural agricultural issues with the trained experts from the land-grant universities. In addition to farming needs, the cooperative system also created other programs such as home economics and 4-H to educate rural residents about current developments.

In California, Ag Extension (later renamed as UC Cooperative Extension) was under the umbrella of the University of California and a farm adviser would be dispatched to a county once a farm bureau was organized. While the University of California would pay for the adviser’s salary, it was the responsibility of the assigned county to fund his traveling and office expenses which amounted to about $2,000 annually. As early as 1915, various groups and individuals, from newspapers, grand juries, the Chamber of Commerce to business men and many of the farmers, called for the formation of Merced County Farm Bureau. It was not until 1917 that such efforts came to fruition.

Facts and figures convinced the doubtful farmers. In January 1917, Professor V. C. Bryant of UC Ag Extension came to Merced and gave a lantern-slide presentation about the benefits of forming a farm bureau. On January 16, 1917, an article that appeared in the Merced County Sun further extolled the benefits of a farm adviser. The article stated that farm advisers made 9,000 visits to ranches and farms in 1916. Glenn County tripled its grain sorghum acreage and the yield was worth $100,000, the seedless raisin yield in Yolo County increased from 50 to 100 percent because of the new trellis pruning methods, and San Diego County’s vegetable and small-fruit growers solved their marketing problems.

Merced County seemed to be behind the game as the Valley counties of Stanislaus, San Joaquin, and Madera had already formed farm bureaus and enlisted the help of their own farm advisers. Organizing locally became the top priority for Merced County farmers. Towns and cities began a series of meetings for the organization of farm centers in preparation for the eventual formation of Merced County Farm Bureau. In January 1917, Merced Colony became the first farm center in Merced County. Many others such as Livingston, Winton, and Le Grand soon followed.

While these farm centers were organized as the nucleus of the eventual county farm bureau, membership development was the other challenge of the farm bureau movement as it required one-fifth of the farmers to sign up. By Feb. 14, a total of 294 membership signatures had been collected with 76 more needed. An annual membership fee was $1. The Chamber of Commerce was solidly behind the farm bureau movement and actively helped collect memberships. By early March, the chamber announced the membership requirement had been met which meant the formation of Merced County Farm Bureau.

On March 7, 1917, Chamber Chairman J. H. Ellis accompanied by a delegation of representatives from various farm centers presented a petition to the Merced County Board of Supervisors for a farm adviser and the board unanimously voted to set aside $2,000 for the securing of a county farm adviser.

As a result, Merced County Farm Bureau was organized, Farm adviser J. F. Grass, Jr. was appointed, and a County Farm adviser office was housed in the Chamber of Commerce office. Merced County Farm Bureau had its very first board meeting on May 17, 1917. The first slate of officers included W. S. Richey of El Nido, president; M. A. Marshall of Gustine, vice-president; Mrs. F. S. Stebbins, secretary; Directors: J. N. Allen of Livingston; G. Paul of Irwin; M. A. Marshall of Cottonwood; A. E. Beers of Merced; A. G. Lane of Amsterdam; W. S. Richey of El Nido; Fay Batten of Dos Palos; and John Wolfsen of Planada.

The first-year membership was 406. Merced County Farm Bureau held its first annual membership meeting on October 6, 1917, at the Courthouse Park where attendees enjoyed a parade, picnic, and concert. While the men attended special meetings, a free movie was shown at the Elite Theater for women and children in the afternoon.

Farm adviser Grass got to work right away and implemented scientific cow testing, organized a fire protective league, waged rabbit extermination campaigns, and made many visits to farms. This was the beginning of a successful partnership between UC Ag Extension and Merced County Farm Bureau. As these two organizations are turning 100 this year, come to see how Ag education has changed the way of farming in Merced County over the last 100 years at our “An Agricultural Centennial” exhibit opening on August 20.

In addition to the exhibit opening, there will be a celebration at the Courthouse Park with food, hands-on activities, and informational booths from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. This event is organized by the Merced County 4-H, Merced County Farm Bureau, UC Cooperative Extension, UC Merced Library, and the Courthouse Museum. For more information, please contact the Courthouse Museum at 209-723-2401.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at mercedmuseum@sbcglobal.net.

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