Leader Believes in His Cause

By CLAY COPPEDGE, Country World Staff Writer

Sept. 11, 2008 - Wes Sims, president of the Texas Farmer’s Union, has a few things in common with Newt Gresham, founder of the National Farmers Union.

Like Sims, Gresham was the son of a sharecropper who grew up to become fiercely dedicated to the American family farmer. Sims would never compare himself to Gresham, whom he admires unabashedly, but the similarities are hard to ignore.

Sims, 72, was born on a Fisher County cotton farm in the middle of the Great Depression. He grew up without electricity or running water; he was 14 when he turned on his first light switch.

“What a great day that was,” he recalled during a recent visit to the Texas Farmers Union office in Waco. “Without the water cooperatives and the electric cooperatives, it would have been many years before we had either of those things.”

Sims was elected to his seventh consecutive term at the TFU president in January. As it has since its inception in 1902 (it was founded in Point), the Farmers Union, including the Texas branch, lobbies on issues that affect the family farmer.

“We take an interest in food safety and health regulations because without consumer confidence in the nation’s food system, our farmers would be greatly harmed,” he said. “We are also involved in health issues, like the closing of hospitals in rural America, and elderly issues.

“Farmers as a whole stay on the farm until they die, even if they don’t farm that long. Their children can’t all stay on the farm, which is why education in rural communities is so important.

“The average age of the farmer is always at the higher end. It’s always higher than any other segment of the population, so we are also involved with issues that affect the elderly.”

The Farmers Union rose from the ashes of the old Farmers Alliance, which was formed in 1877 in Lampasas County and eventually became one of the largest protest organizations in American history. But it had faded away by the end of the 19th Century.

Gresham founded the Farmers Union in 1902 on many of the same principles embraced by the old Alliance. He believed it was essential for farmers to form cooperatives, but it took 20 years and the Capper-Volstead Act to make farmers co-ops legal.

“Newt Gresham was involved with the old Farmers Alliance and he felt that a major fault with it was that the Alliance had no representation in Washington, D.C., where farm legislation came from,” Sims said.

“They named it the Famers Union to bring about a union of states. It’s not a labor union. It hasn’t been legal for farmers to band together to fix prices since 1896.In the case of the Farmers Union, ‘Union’ means ‘United.’”

After organizing Farmers Alliances in Alabama and Tennessee, Gresham returned to Hood County and farm life in 1890. He edited a farm newspaper in Granbury for a while and later owned the Hunt County Observer and the Point Times. He died in 1906 of appendicitis after a prolonged train tour of the south on behalf of the Farmers Union.

“In 1902, when the Farmers Union started, cotton sold for a penny-and-a-half a pound,” Sims said. “In 1903, Newt recommended that farmers, when they took their cotton to the gin, take every fifth bale and put it in a barn. In 1904, he recommended that they not sell any of their cotton. After that, cotton went up to 10 cents a pound.”

The organization spread from Texas to the South and later to Midwest, where farmers adopted many of the same principles but applied it to their grain crops.

Today, the Texas Farmers Union still has several thousand members. The bulk of membership in the National Farmers Union is in the Midwest, where most of the farmers own their own land.

Sims came to the Farmers Union through a lifetime spent working one farm or another in Fisher and Nolan Counties. He took a nine-month business course and studied for a while in Lubbock, but returned to farming in the 1950s in the heart of the “drought of record.”

“We would get a good crop going in and then it would just burn up in July and August,” he said. “I always said when I went on my own I would get an irrigated farm. We had high prices. Those who made a crop did well. The rest of us didn’t. There weren’t safety nets in farm bills for us.”

Sims bought some land in the 1960s and ran a dairy operation for 35 years. The area around Fisher County was thick with dairies in those days. His father-in-law tried to start a dairy cooperative, but the dairy plants in the area cut him off in an effort to discourage him. He began putting his milk in the back of a pick-up truck and driving it 70 miles to Ballinger.

“Dairymen saw what was happening and began to sign up with him,” he said. “Pretty soon, the plants had to buy from the co-ops. They had no choice.”

Sims joined the co-op as well. He went to a meeting in Amarillo one night to deliver a speech. His speech was followed by a speech from the then-president of the TFU. Sims wife said to him, “He sounds a lot like you.”

Not long after that, Sims began his association with the Farmers Union. He is also President of the Texas Fair Trade Coalition.

The biggest threat to family farmers today is the influence of large multinational corporations on government, Sims said. He said he is not opposed to profit - agriculture producers are in business to make a profit too - but the impact of corporate concerns on government policies hurts citizens and farmers alike, not just in this country, but across the world.

“People are so little valued in this economy because of government systems that have people working for pennies a day,” he said. “‘China produces more cotton on less land than we do and they do it with women and children working for $400 or $500 a year.

“In the last few years, when we talked so much about opening up markets, we’ve increased exports by 6 percent but imports have gone up by 60 to 70 percent. In the end, the American people lose and the multi-national corporations win.”

Sims said he has been told that the Farmers Union has outlived its usefulness, that it is an organization out of step with the times. He believes the opposite, that the need for an organization that looks out for the family farmer is more critical now than at any other time in the country’s history.

“I think American agriculture and the family farm system that made this country great is in greater danger now than at any other time in history,” he said. “The forces out there working against us are so powerful. Our greatest interest has always been in the independent family farmer.

“We go through periods of time when people think they don’t need us, but they usually come back. Our people are farmers, or they are people who are involved with agriculture in other ways, through service or supplies, but the vast majority are working farmers.

“When the last family farm is forced off the land we’ll close our doors. Until then, we’re going to be here for them.”

Texas Farmers Union, P.O. Box 738, Sweetwater, Tx 79556