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Farm Organizations

The history of farm organizations is the story of farmers’ attempts to work collectively to better their social and economic position. Prior to the formation of the province of Saskatchewan, farmers attempted to better their situation by four main forms of collective action: Education, non-partisan policy groups, direct political action, and buying and selling arrangements. This early collective action was influenced by the agrarian protest movements known to settlers from the United States, and by the trade unionism and co-operative approach brought by settlers from Great Britain and continental Europe. The National Policy for the 1878 federal election set out a number of objectives for the nation. One was to develop the western agricultural hinterland and integrate the area into the national economy; this was a natural follow-up to the homestead policy introduced in 1872 to attract people from eastern Canada, the United States and overseas to settle the North-West Territories. The essence of the National Policy was to make Ontario and Quebec the core area for industry, finance and commerce, leaving the west to produce staples for export and import consumer goods produced in central Canada. The Policy provided the basis for farmer grievances, mainly concerning the grain-marketing system: it was the beginning of western alienation.

The farm organizations prior to 1905 served to heighten awareness and “class consciousness” respecting economic and social issues facing farmers. Organizations like the Farmers’ Unions, the National Grange, and the Patrons of Industry all laid the cornerstone for a strong co-operative movement and for the general farm organizations which were dominant farm policy lobbies to governments for most of the 20th century. By 1936 the number of farms and farm population had peaked, and most farms could be described as “mixed,” producing a variety of field crops, animal and poultry products: it was therefore appropriate for both the farm unions and the farm federations to represent most farmers on a wide variety of farm policy issues. After World War II, tractor power rapidly replaced horsepower. As farm population declined, farms continued to become larger. They also became more specialized in what they produced, and more diversified: new kinds of field crops and animals were introduced. As a result, from the 1950s there was a phenomenal increase in the formation of specialized commodity groups; this was in contrast to the period 1870–1950, when mergers between farm organizations and organizations ceasing to exist were commonplace.

Saskatchewan has produced strong farm organization leaders, who along with their counterparts in Alberta and Manitoba have formed interprovincial and national farm lobby groups, as well as two general farm organizations: the Canadian Council on Agriculture (and its successor the Canadian Federation of Agriculture) and the National Farmers Union. Soon after farmers began settling on the land, educational groups improved methods of production and enhanced the fabric of rural living. These groups included agricultural societies, horticultural societies, boys and girls clubs and the 4-H movement, homemaker clubs and women’s institutes, and more recently the women’s agricultural network. Several farm organizations also established women’s sections or auxiliaries to address the policy concerns of rural women. In addition to policy concerns, the various livestock and field crop commodity groups have an educational component.

At the beginning of the 21st century there are a large number of farm commodity groups, and three general farm policy organizations: the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, which develops farm policy in addition to municipal policy; the Agricultural Producers of Saskatchewan, with a municipal membership base; and the National Farmers Union, headquartered in Saskatoon. There is also a provincial government body known as the Action Committee on the Rural Economy, whose goal is to revitalize rural communities and develop a strong, viable agricultural sector. Speaking with one united voice on policy issues has often eluded farm organizations: different social, economic and political philosophies among farmers have created internal tension and dissention in their organizations and between farm organizations. Organizations that attempt to represent all commodities are often faced with internal conflict, as policies and programs that are beneficial to one group (e.g., livestock producers) are not beneficial to another group (e.g., grain producers). Failures to agree have weakened the opportunities to become a viable and recognizable sector in the economy of the nation.

Gary Carlson

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This web site was produced with financial assistance
provided by Western Economic Diversification Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan.
University of Regina Government of Canada Government of Saskatchewan Canadian Plains Research Center
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Diversification de l'économie de l'Ouest Canada et le gouvernement de la Saskatchewan.