Matador Farming Pool and the Co-operative Farm Movement

Veterans planting trees at the Matador Co-op Farm, May 1948.
Everett Baker (Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society)

Matador is the most successful of the co-operative farms established under the auspices of Saskatchewan’s CCF government following World War II. Set southwestern Saskatchewan, it is one of the original settlements of the province’s postwar co-operative community movement and its last survivor. The co-operative tradition arose in western Canada at the end of the 19th century and became an integral part of the agrarian settlement of the west. This tradition of rural co-operation was overwhelmingly Rochdalian or liberal democratic, that is, a form of co-operative organization that accepted the existence of the capitalist market-place, respected the family ownership of farms as private property, and advocated the pooling of purchasing and marketing functions through farmer-owned co-operatives. A liberal democratic co-op tended to deal with a single aspect of a person’s life: that concerned with credit, farm production marketing, retail supplies, and so on. In contrast, the co-op farms were intentional co-operative communities, which created a co-operative lifestyle for their members and linked a variety of co-operative institutions under one organizational roof. Co-operative community lifestyles tended towards the communal, and land and assets were owned and worked co-operatively.

The impulse for co-op farms grew out of the democratic socialist vision of the CCF government, first elected in 1944. Taking a bold leap forward in co-operative ideology, the CCF fostered the establishment of co-operative farm communities, which were to be harbingers of a new socialist lifestyle. In some cases, established farmlands were pooled by farmers attracted by the idea, while in others virgin land was given to returning war veterans, who built new communities where none had existed. The co-op farm concept rejected private property and the single-family farming unit in favour of co-operative ownership and lifestyle. Beginning in 1945, the new CCF government offered assistance in the form of free Crown lands, operational loans, and technical advice to those who were willing to farm co-operatively. Among the target groups were Saskatchewan war veterans, for whom it was hoped the co-op farms would provide resettlement opportunities. Founding members of the Matador Co-operative Farm first came together in April 1946; all were demobilized veterans, mainly young, single men. As a group they were granted 10,000 acres of grass prairie, a 33-year lease on the property with an option to purchase after ten years, and rent payable at one-seventh the value of the crop. With about $40,000 in capital and the goodwill and support of the provincial government, the seventeen Matador veterans began their pioneering work, creating a community and turning dry southwestern Saskatchewan into productive farmland.

Despite a couple of crop failures in the early years due to hail and drought, Matador was soon producing large quantities of high-quality grain—so much, in fact, that the farm was unable to either market it or store it when the quota system was introduced in 1950. As a result, the Matador diversified into livestock, a move made easier by the large pool of labour available on a co-operatively run farm. For a number of years Matador was a thriving community, with its own school and co-operative store.

Conditions continued to improve until 1956, when the right-to-purchase clause in the leases kicked in and the farm faced its first major internal crisis. Three members left the co-op, taking their houses and families to the neighbouring village of Kyle. Although this loss was partially made up for by new members, the general trend of decline in co-op farms apparent in the wider community was firmly established. At the same time the number of production co-ops—a limited form of machinery pooling or pasture sharing—increased dramatically from 52 in 1949 to 313 in 1964. This form of co-op maintained the family farm unit and private ownership.

By the 1960s, the acculturation of the generation born at Matador was well underway. The on-site school closed in 1966 because of declining enrolment, and the remaining children were bussed to outside schools. Reaching maturity in the late 1960s, the majority of the children left the farm. For those who remained, the issue of land was resolved in 1974 when the NDP government established the Saskatchewan Land Bank. Under this program, the younger generation incorporated an entity called the Matador Farm Pool, leasing the original 10,000 acres of Matador land from the Land Bank, which had purchased it from the retiring co-op farmers, allowing them to take their equity out of the organization without burdening the next generation with an unmanageable debt. At the time, only about twenty-five people were left at Matador, but the transfer brought in another twenty. Together, they carried the co-operative farming tradition into the 21st century. In 1999, the group amalgamated with a Saskatchewan numbered corporation to become the Matador Farming Pool Limited. By 2004, Matador had eight members; their families were still living on the original site, and engaged in the same general activities that have occupied Matador since its inception in 1946. Today the co-op farm concentrates on grain and cattle production, and also owns two seed-cleaning plants. In addition to the eight members and their families, the farm supports eight full-time and three part-time employees.

Matador played a notable part in the proliferation of co-op farms between 1945 and 1952. There were five co-op farms incorporated in 1946, twenty by 1950, and thirty-two during the peak year of 1952; about 1,000 people lived on these farms at that point. With Saskatchewan’s total farm population at the time standing at 400,000, this represented a tiny fraction of active farm residents in spite of eight years of government support and encouragement. Matador itself had sixty-three residents, considerably higher than the average thirty to fifty on the other co-op farms. As time progressed, the co-op farm idea of 1944 no longer had much relevance or interest, and the number of registered co-op farms began a steady decline, with membership dropping by 50% over the next twenty years. It is important here to distinguish membership in the co-op from residency on the farms: with only one person per family being a member, there were consequently many more residents than actual co-op members, although everyone contributed to farm livelihood.

The co-op farms that remained in the 1970s were primarily extended family operations: related members of a family had chosen to incorporate as a co-operative in which each member held an equal interest. The once-great experiment in co-operative living had been reduced to a pragmatic solution to the need for ever larger amounts of land to sustain profitable farm operations. The new bond was traditional kinship—not the founders’ dream of a socialist society. The reasons for the quick rise and gradual demise of the co-op farm movement are many. Initially, the input of the CCF government gave the movement credibility and support, but this waned after 1952 when the movement came to be viewed as one of narrow appeal and unimportant to CCF re-election. Second, the experiment did not achieve the critical mass of a powerful subculture that would have allowed it to survive in the dominant society and develop into a successful movement like Hutterite communal farms. With a relatively small membership and limited appeal to the wider Saskatchewan farm community that was itself on the path of depopulation, the co-op farm movement never matured beyond its initial utopian stage. In addition, the experience of military camaraderie that had underpinned the early years at Matador was changed in later years by marriage and loyalty to family and children: these traditional responsibilities and commitments modified the focus of the members’ lives. The slow disintegration of other co-op farms had a demoralizing effect on those who remained in the movement. Matador, clinging to the original vision, became more and more an island in a sea of single-family farms that were themselves being amalgamated into ever larger units through the demands of the market and the capacity of new technology.

Inevitably, this trend affected Matador. Its land base did not grow, so the community shrank to fit the limited land base, which could support fewer and fewer families. The decline in the membership at Matador, in fact, reflected the general decline in numbers participating in farming in the province, which dropped by approximately 50% between the mid-1940s and mid-1980s. Nevertheless, the fact that an economically successful co-operative farm like Matador did not expand during its prime is somewhat puzzling. There are several possible explanations. The continuing uncertainty over land tenure and the unclear legal basis for co-op farm landholding was one cause. Likewise, the ideological commitment of the individual members varied, making it difficult for all its members to view Matador as a vanguard of social change. Because the co-op farm movement had deteriorated by the 1970s, Matador ended up dealing with the economic interests of its members rather than sustaining a radical vision for Saskatchewan agriculture. There was also the issue of leadership: the co-op farm movement was initially led by politicians and ideologically motivated bureaucrats, who inspired people to join and offered free land as an enticement, but were not co-operative farmers themselves. Unlike the Rochdale or liberal democratic co-ops of Saskatchewan such as the wheat pools and credit unions, which were initiated outside of government and led from within, the co-op farm movement never developed its own indigenous cadre of leaders.

Initial adherents to the concept came for a variety of reasons. Some were high-minded while others were opportunistic; some were revolutionaries while others were simply interested in government aid. And the commitment to co-operative living varied from person to person. As a consequence, there was no coherent, unified body of thought to guide the experiment and build loyalty. In addition, there was no indigenous secular utopian tradition to relate to, so participants were isolated in their pioneering activities. While the co-op farms had the advantage of external support, this support meant a certain level of dependence, which would later help undermine the experiment. The initial government activity on behalf of co-op farms did not allow a substantial self-help attitude to develop, which would have promoted mutual aid and interdependence among participants. Unlike Hutterite communal farms, which have flourished in the same time period using self-help and the ideology of growth, co-op farms turned more to government than to each other. As a result, the internal strength necessary to build a successful movement did not materialize. Despite the failure of the movement as a whole, Matador remains, after half a century, a symbol of a socialist experiment unique to Canada and has entered the mythology of Saskatchewan’s democratic socialist identity.