The woman who filled her bathtub with milk and bathed in it earned a certain amount of notoriety in our neighborhood. She did so as part of a National Farmers Organization withholding action in the 1960s.
The NFO, founded in the late 1950s and headquartered in Ames, Iowa, had a strong presence in Minnesota. The organization attracted both praise and scorn when it withheld milk from the market for 15 days and cut national output by 2% in March 1967. The Albion-French Lake Cooperative of Annandale was the site for a massive milk dump of 4,600 gallons.
An Iowa-based federal judge issued a temporary restraining order to stop the effort.
Withholding actions in a bid to flex marketing power and to hike market prices extended to other enterprises. NFO members used trucks to blockade livestock deliveries to South St. Paul. Other actions involved blocking rural roads, laying down nails to flatten truck tires, and confronting those who refused to withhold. Two men who attempted to block a hauler’s truck in Wisconsin were run over and killed.
The tragedy darkened the reputation of the movement.
The NFO found itself in court when processors charged it with monopolistic practices in 1967. The organization won the “Midwest Milk Monopolization’’ suit and was awarded $21 million, but the decision wasn’t reached until years later.
Farmer activism is as old as the nation.
Shays’ Rebellion in the 18th century involved New England farmers who attacked courthouses and other government offices to protest low prices and policies that worked against their economic interests. Farmer Daniel Shays led the group. He was arrested and sentenced, but he and most others involved were pardoned.
A less violent action in the 19th century against high railroad shipping rates and soaring input prices spawned the cooperative movement, which thrived despite strong opposition from those who thought it a dangerous form of European socialism.
The economic catastrophe of the Great Depression led to penny auctions in which farm auction participants vowed to bid a maximum cent on livestock and machinery so that lenders would suffer.
Technology in the form of high-voltage power lines sparked protests in the 1970s. A writer from the New York Times penned an article in November 1978 that aired complaints against a line project. Farmers and rural residents said a test on the line made their skin itch, caused radios to crackle, and ruined TV pictures. Other and more severe complaints from others affected by proposed high-power lines included cancer and risks to pregnancies and infants. A farmer said that he received a shock when tilling a field beneath a power line and another said a light bulb shined when it was held beneath a line. Land use and environmental issues were also raised.
Many asked for a line construction moratorium. A dispute involving the Coal Creek Station near Underwood, N.D., gained widespread attention. The Cooperative Power Association and the United Power Association proposed constructing 400 miles of line. The lines would be erected on field boundaries when possible and across them when necessary.
The cooperatives’ plans were approved, but landowners and rural residents were not happy. Authorities reported that 9,500 insulators were shot out and 16 towers felled by vandals.
Desperation caused by the 1980s farm crisis sparked protests. As a young reporter, I covered a sit-in at Federal Land Bank office in northern Iowa. The small FLB office was staffed by an overwhelmed employee who tried to defuse the situation as best he could. The anger was directed more at the lending practices of the federal FLB and other federal lending agencies.
Loans had been aggressively pushed in the go-go era. The flaw in the system was loans were given more so on equity than income. When land prices fell, mortgages went underwater.
It was a tragic time and caused farmers to respond with a groundswell of activism.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.