The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Staley, Oren Lee
(May 6, 1923–September 19, 1988)

–farm organization executive and longtime president of the National farmer Organization (NFO)—was born on a farm about one-half mile southeast of Whitesville, Missouri, the only child of Elmer and Avis (Thompson) Staley. He graduated as salutatorian from King City (Missouri) High School, where he was active in 4-H and was elected class president and president of the student council. He served in the U.S. Navy in 1944-1945 as a pharmacist mate third class. He then attended Northwest Missouri State College at Marysville for two years, majoring in agriculture. He received top grades but was compelled to quit college because of his father's declining health. He married Ruth Margaret Turner on August 11, 1946. They had three children: Janice, Greg, and Cathy.

    Staley farmed in his hometown area, where he raised Shorthorn cattle and developed the idea that farmer should not rely on the federal government's subsidy programs to create prosperity for themselves. Instead, farmer should take direct action by forming cooperative networks to negotiate with food processing companies on prices paid to farmer for their products. He based his idea on the Capper-Volstead Act of 1922, which gave farmer the option to organize and seek collective action to market their produce. The act gave farmer an organizational exemption from antitrust penalties as long as they owned or controlled the production of the commodities involved in the bargaining process.

    A series of drought years in Iowa and Missouri in the mid 1950s began to spur Staley into action, and he took a leading role in forming the NFO in 1955. Prices for farm commodities had dropped low enough to create widespread discontent among farmer who felt helpless and unable to get prices high enough to be profitable. Staley's force of personality, passion for the movement, and gifted ability as an orator cast him into the forefront of the NFO immediately, and he was elected the first president of the organization. Although elections were held annually, Staley managed to get reelected every year until 1979. By the end of his tenure, the NFO had 423 facilities (dairy, grain, livestock collection, specialties, or offices) in 26 states, mostly through the Midwest and plains states but ranging from Maine to California.

    The national headquarters of the NFO were located in Corning, Iowa, in what had been an old grocery store in the business district. Although Staley continued living and farming near Whitesville, Missouri, he kept an office in the headquarters building in Corning, where he routinely conducted the business of the organization. (Although Staley never lived in Iowa, he can be considered an Iowan because of continuous work in the office in Corning.) He kept only simple furnishings in his office, and it always remained uncarpeted. He also took modest salaries for his work in the organization.

    Staley was always a controversial figure. His favored method of bargaining with food processors involved the holding action, in which farmer would hold their products from the market in large quantities to force the food processors to bargain with the NFO directly. On a number of occasions, NFO members resorted to tactics reminiscent of the Depression era. Tactics such as mass shootings of hogs, milk dumping, and grain burning created great public excitement and controversy. Staley's emotional oratory often helped inspire these behaviors and almost always drew mass audiences, especially at annual conventions of the NFO. Those meetings were often stormy, with debate going well into the night, and Staley frequently faced opposition for reelection, although he always won handily. Staley took great pride that he was on President Richard Nixon's notorious "Enemies List."

    The NFO had constant financial problems over the years, but until 1979 Staley always managed to deal effectively with the problems. On one occasion, in September 1974, he raised $5.2 million at a meeting in Des Moines to prove the NFO's solvency when he was embroiled in a case with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which was trying to force the NFO into receivership. In 1979, when the national board of directors balked at another of Staley's fund-raising attempts, he resigned and returned to full-time farming near Whitesville. He also established a farm real estate office in St. Joseph, Missouri.

    In September 1988 Staley suffered a fractured skull from a fall in a parking lot and died on September 19 at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City.
Sources For basic biographical information on Staley, see Who Was Who in America, vol. 9 (1985–1989); Don Muhm, The NFO: A Farm Belt Rebel: The History of the National farmer Organization (2000); and George Brandsberg, The Two Sides in NFO's Battle (1964). For a partisan pro-NFO view, see Willis Rowell, Mad as Hell (1984). There are dozens of newspaper articles on Staley in the clippings file at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines; see especially Des Moines Register 1/15/1968, 1/28/1979 (a feature article on his resignation from the NFO), 9/21/1988 (on his death), and 9/22/1988 (editorial on Staley's life and career).
Contributor: David Holmgren

Cite as: Holmgren, David. "Staley, Oren Lee" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 1 September 2014