If there lingers any doubt as to the enduring legacy Farm Bureau involvement can impress upon its members, alumni of the Berrien County Junior Farm Bureau can handily dismiss the skeptical.
The precursor of today’s vital Young Farmer program, Michigan’s Junior Farm Bureau thrived from its inception in 1935 until a 1957 update that retired its name, if not its mission. It set the template for its successor programs, smuggling leadership training into young people’s hard-wiring by disguising it as fellowship, camaraderie and friendly competition.
Members of Berrien County’s “Juniors” reconvene every year at a venue with special meaning to the group’s remaining members. The Youth Memorial Building, center stage at the Berrien County Fairgrounds, may be the most visible legacy of those who recently gathered inside.
“How many of you were in attendance at one of our $10 dinners to raise money to pay for this building?” Bob Norris asked of his gathered peers, causing more than half the group’s hands to reach toward the bentwood roof beams.
Originally devised as a practical community resource — and to honor more than 75 Junior Farm Bureau members who fought in World War II and Korea — the building took shape in 1953 and hosted its own mortgage-burning celebration only eight years later.
“I recall so well: Right where we’re seated, we pulled a semi in here loaded with these blocks for the walls,” Norris said. “All of these blocks were seconds, so we were able to buy them for a little over nothing.
“And look at what this building has done for the community and the area since it was built and dedicated.”
This year’s reunion took place Sept. 24, two days shy of member Helen Morlock’s 96th birthday.
“I worked with the co-op in Buchanan when I was a younger,” Morlock remembered like it was yesterday. “Katherine Blackman was there and said, ‘Come to this meeting with me,’ and I said ‘I’m not a farmer — I live in town.’
“She said, ‘You don’t have to be a farmer,’ but I became one, though — I met my husband through Junior Farm Bureau.”
It’s a recurring theme. Roughly a third of the 30 attendees met their future spouses through involvement in Junior Farm Bureau. Another Berrien alum, Barb Radewald, affirms upwards of 60 Berrien County farm couples owe their love connections to the organization.
While the Junior Farm Bureau’s matchmaking power may elicit more warm fuzzies, it’s not the only enduring stamp made on its members.
Mistress of Ceremonies Carol (Shrave) Sonnenberg struck a theme that resonated with several of her peers.
“I belong to a club house in Florida and, first time they had a meeting, they didn’t know how to do it!” she said. “How to run a meeting was one of the first things we learned in Farm Bureau, and most people have no idea.”
“You went to a meeting and you had to do it properly or you weren’t heard at all,” added Millie Wendzel. “I go to meetings now at my age and people still don’t know how to make a motion. I still use it to this day.”
Kathleen Walter remembered lessons learned managing concessions at the major summertime fairs in Ionia and Detroit.
“We had a big variety of different activities that led us to learning different skills,” she said. “I learned a lot of things that didn’t end up being my career, but I still used those skills my whole life — not just farm activities.”
Radewald added that the leadership training Junior Farm Bureau members took away from the program often served them well throughout their adult lives.
“Many of our Junior Farm Bureau people became very involved with county commissions, school boards and other organizations,” she said. “As adults they were so well grounded and knew how to get things done, they could be relied on.
“When you go to state Farm Bureau functions today and you see all these young people involved, it really makes you proud.”
On the lighter side, several of The Juniors shared fond memories of square dancing competitions and friendly rivalries between neighboring groups.
“There was a little bit of competition” between Berrien County’s central, north, south and west Junior factions, remembered Carolyn Umphrey. “I think north was the best, of course, but it seems like the Niles group — central — they had a lot of good dances and we went and got to know all of Berrien County.
“We kept square dancing alive for a long time.”
And if you believe its members, not a single one of them ran afoul of authority — not once.
“I remember the square dancing, and we went to Chicago once,” recalled Don Payne. “We went to the Ionia fair and we were busy in the cafeteria but we had fun and nobody ever got into trouble.”
…to which one of his unidentified peers muttered, “We covered each other’s asses!”
At its peak in the mid-1950s, Junior Farm Bureau membership numbered more than 1,500 across 60+ groups in almost 50 Michigan counties.
While its most visible programs remained food and beverage concessions at the Ionia and Michigan State fairs, behind the scenes there was training in leadership skills, member recruitment, parliamentary procedure, program planning and a campaign of on-farm safety checks conducted across 20 counties in coordination with the Grange, FFA, FHA and 4‑H.
In 1957 the name change — from Junior Farm Bureau to Farm Bureau Young People — didn’t alter the program’s tenets of leadership, education and community service.
As advances in communication and transportation eroded the isolation of farm life, so evolved Farm Bureau’s programming for its youngest members. Another name change in 1966, to Farm Bureau Young Farmers, indicated interest in integrating its programming into the organizational mainstream.
In later years, the change struck longtime MFB President Elton R. Smith as deeper than semantic.
“When they changed from the Young People to Young Farmers and ‘went professional,’ that really made Farm Bureau,” Smith said. “Leadership development is what it’s all about.
“All you’ve got to do is analyze other organizations where the leadership today is the same as it was 20 years ago to appreciate what the Young Farmer program has done for Farm Bureau.”