State’s first Farm Bureau celebrates its centennial


Issue Date: July 24, 2013
By Kate Campbell
In 1913, Humboldt County farmers founded the state’s first county Farm Bureau. A limited road system meant farmers used rivers and boats to move produce to market.
Photo/Moxon Family collection
The crew on Thornton Ranch near Arcata, used both horse-drawn and mechanical equipment in the early 20th century.
Photo/ Moxon Family collection
A 1917 Arcata Fair display showcases farm products.
Photos/ Humboldt State University Library
A father and daughte prepare to plow bottom land.
Photos/ Humboldt State University Library
The first president of the county Farm Bureau, Henry Devoy, joins his family in a “ringing the redwood” portrait.
Photos/ Humboldt State University Library
This turn-of-the-20th-century photo from Humboldt County was taken at a time when the county led the state in milk and butter production.
Photo/ Humboldt State University Library

In 1913, American agriculture was in transition. The turn of the 20th century marked a shift from horse-drawn farm implements to motorized equipment. At the same time, universities were amassing a body of scientific information related to agriculture that researchers believed should be shared directly with farmers and ranchers in the field. That philosophy made sense in Humboldt County, where demand linked to the California Gold Rush had encouraged rapid agricultural growth in an area known for dairy products, timber and livestock production.

On July 1, 1913, the University of California received federal funding to create the division of Agricultural Extension. An offer was made to put a UC farm advisor in any county that would organize a Farm Bureau with at least one-fifth of the farmers in the county included in its membership. The idea was to have university scientists take to the road in those counties to teach by doing, rather than confining information to classrooms.

Humboldt County Farm Bureau—the oldest Farm Bureau in California and the second oldest in the nation—embraced the idea of working with experts to improve farming in the area and this week celebrates the centennial of its founding.

The county Farm Bureau will sponsor a number of events on Saturday, beginning with family activities in Samoa, including an antique tractor and car display and a free ice cream social. The festivities conclude with a banquet at the Samoa Cookhouse, featuring speakers including American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman and California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger.

Dona Moxon, former Humboldt County Farm Bureau executive director and a local historian, said people often ask why Humboldt County became the location for the first county Farm Bureau in California. Depending on how facts are interpreted, she said, the answer is good luck, good friends, and a shared desire to succeed in farming and ranching in a relatively isolated area.

Humboldt's stroke of good luck came in the person of Andy Christiansen, described in the "History of Humboldt County" as a Ferndale boy who worked on his family's dairy before earning an agriculture degree from UC Berkeley in 1911. He accepted the Humboldt County farm advisor position in 1913 and set out—often on horseback—to help farmers with the latest scientific information.

The county 4-H program also began that year as part of the Cooperative Extension program to provide agricultural education to youth, and Humboldt State University was also founded in 1913.

Dairy farmer John Vevoda of Ferndale said Farm Bureau's close relationship with university researchers, youth programs and local academic organizations continues today.

"A lot has changed in the past 100 years, but Farm Bureau has adapted and grown," he said. "Farm Bureau has played a huge role in supporting dairies as they've come under increasing regulation, and shown leadership in issues of land use, timber, revisions to the county general plan and taxation.

"I started farming here in 1974 right out of college and, if it wasn't for UC Cooperative Extension, I probably would have been a failure," said Vevoda, who is a former Humboldt County Farm Bureau president and current CFBF director. "That probably wasn't so different 100 years ago."

At the turn of the 20th century, Vevoda said, apples were a big export crop, along with dairy products, making Humboldt County one of the largest agricultural counties in the state.

"Most ag products were shipped out of here on schooners to San Francisco," he said. "But in 1914, rail service was established and that provided our farmers and ranchers with a huge advantage. We shipped turkeys, cattle, apples, butter—a lot of butter."

Today, Humboldt County remains a strong agricultural producer, with nearly $235 million in agricultural production, said Humboldt County Farm Bureau President Greg Dale. The county produces timber, nursery products, milk and livestock, farmed seafood, as well as a variety of fruit, nut and vegetable crops. Organic products represent nearly 20 percent of total crop production and products such as grass-fed beef are growing in popularity.

Dairy rancher and timberland owner Henry Devoy was elected the first president of the county Farm Bureau in 1913. His then 94-year-old granddaughter, Alice Perry, said in a 2009 interview that her grandfather would say, "You have to be practical in this world or you're left behind."

After Humboldt County Farm Bureau was founded in 1913, farmers in several counties followed Humboldt's lead and by 1915, there were nearly a dozen county Farm Bueaus in California. In 1919, the statewide Farm Bureau organization was established, with L.S. East serving as the Humboldt County delegate. Local dues increased from $1 to $2, with the added dollar going to the state Farm Bureau. AFBF was established the same year.

The Humboldt County Farm Bureau remained strong through 1929, but the Great Depression and World War II caused the county organization to cease operation, restarting in 1946.

"Farm Bureau's about more than supporting advanced science, market access or government relations," said Dale, who is an oyster farmer with Coast Seafood in Eureka. "Today, Farm Bureau support is all about its members as they deal with a growing number of issues. And, just like in the past, Humboldt County Farm Bureau takes this responsibility very seriously."

For more information on this week's centennial celebrations, contact the Humboldt County Farm Bureau at 707-443-4844 or look online at www.humboldtfarmbureau.org.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.