Since the inception of co-operatives in the early years of the 20th century, farmers in Saskatchewan have perceived them as an effective means of growing, processing, and marketing their produce. Over the past decade, agriculture and resource-based co-operatives have comprised approximately one-quarter of the co-operative organizations in the province. Correspondingly, they also account for nearly 25% of co-op employees, about the same percentage of co-op wages, and more than 60% of the revenues generated by co-operatives in Saskatchewan. Co-operatives in this category include farming, feeder, grazing, breeding, seed cleaning, farmers’ markets, soil conservation, fishing, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, Dairyworld (until December 2000), and other agricultural-based organizations.
The roots of farming and machinery co-operatives in Saskatchewan can be traced to the mid-1940s, when the rehabilitation of returning war veterans became an issue and existing farmers were beginning to face the challenges of increased mechanization and high capital investment. In response, the CCF government of the day facilitated the establishment of farming co-operatives; and although most of them, struggling in an environment and an economic and legal system dominated by the family farm, eventually failed, co-operative farming enterprises continued to be formed into the 21st century. At the time of writing the financial health of these organizations was relatively good, although compared to the many farms operating in Saskatchewan their numbers—fewer than forty—remain quite small.
Feeder co-operatives began appearing in the mid-1980s with the formation of the Feeder Association Loan Guarantee Program, which assisted farmers with feeding and marketing their cattle. Each association was required to deposit 5% of the funds borrowed under government loan guarantees in an assurance fund. The number of feeder co-operatives peaked in the mid-1990s and has gradually dropped off since that time. At the time of writing there were about 4,500 active members in somewhat over 100 feeder co-operatives, which provided employment for around 140 individuals.
Grazing co-operatives enable farmers to rent grazing land on a collective basis. While the number of co-operatives has remained relatively stable over the past fifteen years—around 135—there has been a decrease in the number of active members, which now totals about 1,400 individuals. Although assets and revenues have also declined over the past few years, the number of individuals employed in grazing co-operatives and consequently the wage bill have increased by about 23% and 17% respectively.
In addition to the services provided by grazing and feeder co-operatives, livestock farmers have also formed breeding co-operatives to supply artificial insemination services. Although there are fewer than twenty of these organizations in the province, breeding co-operatives have nevertheless been increasing in numbers and in active members over the past fifteen years. A low level of reporting from this sector makes it difficult to be conclusive about overall changes.
Seed-cleaning co-operatives are in a similar situation to breeding co-ops, although it is known that their number has remained consistent at ten since 1989. The employment they provide has remained relatively stable, while active membership has increased slightly.
Dispersed throughout the province, farmers’ markets provide an avenue for the direct marketing of a wide variety of farm produce. The majority of these businesses operate on a break-even basis, and revenues consist mainly of charges to members for co-ordination services and table rentals. The number of co-operatives, the number of active members, assets, revenues, and the employment provided by this sector have declined slowly but consistently over the past fifteen years, leaving about forty farmers’ markets with approximately 1,300 active members at the time of writing.
In keeping with concerns about sustainable agricultural practices, soil-conservation co-operatives began to spring up in the mid-1980s. Several of these received substantial funding from the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, with which they embarked on conservation projects such as the establishment of shelter-belts, conservation tillage, and continuous cropping. The number of these co-operatives declined substantially from a peak of fifteen in 1989 to only three at the turn of the 21st century. Total membership declined likewise, from more than 200 to less than 40.
All but one of the ten fishing co-operatives in Saskatchewan are in the north of the province. The primary service provided by these co-ops to their members is the rental of fishing equipment, and most operate on a break-even basis while relying on volunteer labour. Although the number of fishing co-ops has been consistent over the past few years, active membership has fallen significantly to fewer than 400 individuals.
Established in 1924 as a central marketing organization for grain producers, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool (SWP) now ranks as the largest Saskatchewan-based corporation. It is also Canada’s largest grain-handling company, but while this accounts for almost half of its operations it is also deeply involved in the farm supply sector, agri-food processing, livestock marketing, and, until 2001, publishing. The Pool underwent a significant change in its ownership structure in 1996, which allowed it to be listed as a publicly traded company and to issue Class B non-voting shares, an unusual move for a co-operative in Canada. Although it has struggled with serious financial difficulties over the past number of years, SWP employs more than 2,500 people and manages a wage bill of over $100 million, which makes a significant contribution to the economy of the province.
While Saskatchewan no longer has a dairy co-operative, this sector was active in the province for more than 100 years, beginning with the organization of a number of creameries during the 1890s. Dairy Producers Co-operative, established in 1972, was the result of a merger between the Saskatchewan Co-operative Creameries Association and the Dairy Pool. After that amalgamation, Dairy Producers handled the majority of the province’s milk and cream shipments, and while milk and milk products made up the largest proportion of its sales, the co-op also handled other products such as poultry, eggs, and juice. In 1996 Dairy Producers amalgamated with a number of other dairy co-operatives in western Canada to form Agrifoods International Co-operative, which marketed its products under the name of Dairyworld Foods. In December 2000, Agrifoods sold its Dairyworld assets to an Italian dairy multinational, Saputo, which brought an end to the co-operative dairy sector in western Canada.
Agricultural and resource-based co-operatives in the “other” category cover a wide variety of enterprises, including wild-rice producers, organic growers, a greenhouse, Christmas-tree growers, pheasant and rabbit producers, as well as livestock and sheep marketers. While there are fewer than twenty of these miscellaneous co-operatives, and incomplete data collection makes comparisons difficult, it is known that the number of co-ops in this category has increased slightly over the past few years and that the number of employees has grown dramatically.