United We Farm

How the UFA went from farmers advocate to political powerhouse to big business

By Donna Balkan

It’s been called the best-known brand in rural Alberta: the simple orange-and-green logo marking the site of local UFA farm and ranch supply stores. It sells everything from hog drinkers to chick guards, from chop saws to grain scoops, from driller boots to neck warmers, from solvents to snow plows. The organization it represents is a major player in petroleum, construction and, most recently, hunting, fishing and camping gear. It’s a $2-billion enterprise owned by 120,000 Albertans who pay $5 apiece for memberships. Based on annual turnover, it’s the sixth largest co-operative in Canada and one of the top 200 in the world. And last January, it began its second century.

United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) is not the only local business with a 100-year legacy. But it’s the only one whose legacy includes a 14-year stint governing the province and a history that’s as colourful as one of the bright orange stores beneath the bright orange-and-green logos. And despite the recession, the influx of big box stores and an increasingly urban provincial population, UFA is looking forward to the future.

Alberta in 1909 was very much in flux. It had only been a province for four years and its population was growing by leaps and bounds. Many of its inhabitants were recent arrivals, coming from the US, Europe and central Canada with a dream of cheap land and a new beginning. In the US Midwest, the frontier days were over; land was becoming increasingly expensive and prospective farmers looked north to a new and unspoiled frontier.

Many of the US newcomers brought with them the populist activism that had swept through the midwestern and southern states in the latter half of the 19th century. As early as 1850, farmer co-operatives began to emerge in Wisconsin, Iowa and other states. In 1867, US farmers established the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, a movement that promoted the co-operative purchase of agricultural supplies, co-operative grain elevators and pooled savings as an alternative to relying on banks (a forerunner of today’s credit unions). Organizations with similar objectives followed, including the Farmers’ Alliance, the Farmers’ Union and the American Society of Equity (ASE). Many of these farmer organizations worked closely with the fledgling labour movement to promote reformist legislation, and became active in electoral politics through the creation of the Progressive Party and the presidential campaign of Democrat and prairie populist William Jennings Bryan. One of Bryan’s supporters was a Missouri farmer and bible scholar named Henry Wise Wood, a strong believer in the Social Gospel movement, which brought together Christianity and social activism. Wood moved to Alberta in 1904 and played a significant role in the future of the farmers movement.

Meanwhile, in the Canadian prairies farmers were also organizing, spurred on by concerns related to the transportation of grain. The CPR had enormous control over how grain was transported; farmers were initially able to load grain directly onto rail cars, but the CPR eventually banned this practice, putting farmers at the mercy of private grain elevator operators. In 1901, Saskatchewan farmer William Motherwell and some of his neighbours organized the Territorial Grain Growers’ Association, which lobbied for legislation to break the railway monopoly. The TGGA lobbied successfully for federal legislation to change the grain transportation system, and when the CPR ignored the legislation, the fledgling association took the railway to court and won. A few years later, some of the farmers who had emigrated from the US decided to create an Alberta chapter of the ASE, with locals in Spruce Grove, Namao, Beaumont, Stony Plain and Poplar Lake. But while some Alberta farmers looked south, others look east to Saskatchewan, and in 1905, 30 farmers met at the Ross Hall in Strathcona to form the Strathcona local of TGGA.

When Alberta and Saskatchewan acquired provincial status in 1905, the Alberta locals of the TGGA changed the organization’s name to the Alberta Farmers’ Association (AFA). At around the same time, the Alberta locals of the ASE also changed their name, becoming the Canadian Society of Equity (CSE).

While both the AFA and the CSE claimed some successes, the divisions between them weakened the farmers movement. Initial efforts to merge the two organizations failed, but by 1908 they realized there was no alternative if they were to achieve their objectives. In September of that year, a committee was struck with representatives of both organizations to draft a new constitution. On the morning of January 14, 1909, AFA delegates ratified the merger by a vote of 101 to 14; the following day, the CSE membership joined them.

In his book Deep Roots, Promising Future (which was commissioned by the UFA to commemorate its centenary), writer and long-time UFA member Gord Tolton provides a vivid description of the scene at Mechanics’ Hall in Edmonton when the CSE delegates arrived at the convention.

“The newcomers were greeted to the strains of dozens of throaty farmers warbling ‘For They Are Jolly Good Fellows.’ Under the Union Jack flag, the AFA ‘extended the hand of good fellowship to all.’ All around the room well-dressed men rose from their creaky wooden chairs and greeted their new comrades. Hands shot out from behind woollen jackets and buffalo coats as the CSE men met the AFA delegates. Except that they were no longer CSE or AFA folk. With a rousing array of ‘hip-hip-hooray’ cheers for each of the old organizations and one for the new, all differences were dissolved.”

UFA created the Wheat Pool and gained control of natural resources from the feds.

The new organization quickly went about its work of organizing farmers and lobbying for farmer-friendly legislation. In its structure, UFA was modelled after labour unions, with dozens of locals across the province held together by a central umbrella organization. The UFA locals were a central focus of community activity: they raised funds to build community halls, schools, hospitals and cemeteries, and if a member became ill, the local was there to help. On the lobbying front, UFA fought for everything from low-interest farm loans to rural schools, from improved roads to hail insurance. One of its greatest successes came in 1913, when it convinced Alberta’s Liberal government to create the Alberta Farmers’ Co-operative Elevator Company.

Their target was not only the provincial government, but the federal government as well. UFA joined with farmers’ organizations from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario to form the Canadian Council of Agriculture, the founding vice-president of which was UFA’s first president, James Bower, a bushy-moustached Ontario native who had come to Alberta to seek new opportunities. Their big issue was tariffs on US-made machinery, which benefited manufacturers in Eastern Canada but had a negative impact on prairie farmers. In December 1910, Bower and three other UFA leaders, together with farm leaders from other provinces, led 800 angry farmers to Ottawa and stormed Parliament Hill, occupying MPs’ seats in the House of Commons. Their petition demanded that Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier sign a reciprocity treaty with the US, thus putting an end to protectionist tariffs. To quote Tolton’s Deep Roots, Promising Future, “the Siege of Ottawa foreshadowed UFA’s future as a political force in Western Canada.”

Given UFA’s focus on legislative action—both provincial and federal—it isn’t surprising that the organization eventually turned its attention to electoral politics. Just as the ASE inspired many of Alberta’s early farm advocates, the Non-partisan League (NPL)—a farmers’ movement which in 1916 captured the state legislature in North Dakota—inspired UFA members who wanted to more directly influence the course of politics in the province. Others were turned off by the NPL’s socialist bent and felt that if UFA were to succeed in politics, it would need to be less ideological and appeal to a critical mass of rural residents, many of whom were strong free enterprisers. Ironically, the charismatic Henry Wise Wood, who became president of UFA in 1916, was somewhat ambivalent about his organization’s entry into electoral politics, having witnessed first-hand the divisiveness of farmers’ political organizations in his native US. Even after UFA achieved electoral success, Wood stayed at arm’s length from partisan politics, preferring to focus his activism on farming and economic issues.

In 1919, Charles Fisher, the Liberal MLA for Cochrane, died in office. The UFA saw its opportunity. It ran dairyman Alexander Moore as a candidate in the by-election, and Moore won, 835 votes to 708. In the 1921 provincial election, with a campaign financed by $2 subscriptions—collections taken up at rallies and contributions from the candidates themselves—UFA ran in 45 of Alberta’s 61 ridings and, to the surprise of nearly everyone, won 38 seats and formed a majority government. Herbert Greenfield became the province’s first UFA premier. Irene Parlby—today best known as one of the Famous Five who successfully fought for women’s political rights in the 1929 Persons Case—became the first female cabinet minister in Alberta history.

Despite its inexperience, the UFA government was popular. In 1926, John E. Brownlee led the party to its second majority government, followed by a third in 1930. But in 1934 Brownlee was forced to resign after a sensational seduction trial involving a young government stenographer named Vivian MacMillan. Brownlee was an unlikely Lothario: a large man at 6’3″ and well over 230 pounds, he had the reputation of being “all work and no play” and was described by some as “the sober-faced seducer,” according to his biographer, Franklin Foster.

Richard G. Reid took over as premier. The Brownlee sex scandal, combined with the devastating impact of the Great Depression, was the death knell for the UFA government. In the 1935 election, UFA received a mere 11 per cent of the popular vote and failed to elect a single MLA as William Aberhart and Social Credit swept into power.

While UFA’s political fortunes fell as quickly as they had risen, the UFA government had a lasting impact on Alberta’s political, social and economic landscape. In 1923, the government created the Alberta Wheat Pool, and in 1929 it scored its most important victory when, after years of negotiating, Brownlee achieved a deal with the federal government that gave Alberta control of its natural resources. A full 18 years before a geyser spewed oil at Leduc, transforming Alberta virtually overnight from a “have-not” to a wealthy province, the UFA government had ensured the province’s economic destiny.

UFA’s political experiment had a lasting legacy in other ways. Its populism laid the foundation for political movements as ideologically diverse as the CCF/NDP and the Reform Party. Its reign was over, but its impact would never be forgotten.

Following the defeat of the UFA government, the co-operative turned its attention from politics to the business world. Even before its 1940 convention endorsed a resolution banning partisan political activity, UFA had its eyes on the future.

UFA wasn’t a total newcomer to co-operative business ventures; in its early years, UFA locals created their own consumer co-ops, although many failed due to hostility from wholesalers, an inability to acquire credit and a dependence on the efforts of volunteer managers. In 1932, while the UFA government was still in power, UFA Central Co-operative was established to coordinate and centralize the buying power of UFA locals.

Ironically, the decision that laid the foundation for UFA’s future success had nothing to do with farm supplies and everything to do with petroleum. “As the Depression was in its throes, farmers realized that the tractor and the combine and the internal combustion engine were going to be their future,” says UFA historian Tolton. “Before the 1930s, every farmer was by necessity a horseman—after the 1930s, every farmer was essentially a mechanic. They realized that if they were going to stay in business, they needed a reliable source of fuel.”

Prompted by member concerns about fuel distribution, UFA entered the oil business. In 1935, UFA negotiated a deal with Imperial Oil which gave it exclusive distribution rights to the Maple Leaf Petroleum brand. UFA became the general agent for Maple Leaf, handling its petroleum, engine and gear oils and grease products. UFA established 10 bulk plants and made arrangements to supply Maple Leaf products to 111 UFA locals. When the UFA Co-op incorporated in 1949, there were 148 UFA fuel outlets operating across Alberta. On January 1, 1957, UFA purchased Maple Leaf’s assets from Imperial Oil for $1-million and became a full-scale petroleum marketer.

Meanwhile, UFA was busy on the farm supply front. It opened its first store in Calgary in 1954 and its second in Edmonton in 1957. But it never forgot its mandate to serve farmers locally, and UFA farm and ranch supply stores began to dot the rural landscape. Today, there are 36 such stores across the province.

If there’s one theme that runs throughout UFA’s first century, it’s “adaptation.” As the UFA reflects on the past while celebrating its centenary, it’s also looking to the future. Over the past 15 years, the co-operative has broadened and diversified its business even further. In 1996, it expanded across the Alberta border with its first petroleum cardlock facility in Dawson Creek, BC; it now also has a petroleum outlet in Kindersley, Sask. In 1998, UFA purchased Stirdon Systems, a manufacturer of agricultural equipment, and in 2001, UFA acquired Saskatoon feed dealer Betker Livestock.

More recently, UFA has looked beyond its traditional clientele—and beyond the Canadian border. One of its newest divisions, UFA Construction, is dedicated to large-scale municipal, commercial and industrial projects, as well as the home renovation market. In 2008, UFA acquired Wholesale Sports, the largest outdoor outfitter in western Canada. This year, UFA acquired 15 Sportsman’s Warehouse stores in the US.

According to UFA’s current chairman, Clarence Olthuis, diversification is the key to UFA’s survival. “We went into outdoor stores because our customers and owners want to be able to work, live and play in the country,” he says. Olthuis, a soft-spoken, bespectacled grain and poultry farmer from Neerlandia, has been active in agricultural organizations throughout his career. “To be sustainable, we have to look at other opportunities. Agriculture and petroleum are both volatile businesses—getting involved in other areas helps us protect against commodity swings.”

Based on financial results alone, the formula seems to be working. In 2004, the revenues of UFA Co-operative Limited, as it is now known, topped the $1-billion mark for the first time. Just four years later, in 2008, its revenues had doubled to $2-billion.

But what of UFA’s roots as an advocate for the Alberta farmer? Can UFA become a diversified, multi-billion dollar business and still remain true to its purpose? No matter who you talk to at UFA, the answer is an unqualified yes.

“We provide farmers with the products and services they need in challenging times,” says Richard Peter, UFA’s director of corporate and customer communications and chair of its centennial committee. “There are other ways to be in the farmers’ corner—we’ve just chosen not to [use] the political arena.”

The way Peter sees it, UFA still remains very different from other businesses, including the big-box stores that some perceive as a threat to its survival. For one thing, it’s still a co-operative, democratically governed and rooted in the community.

“Most rural businesses are in the country—the country is in UFA,” he says. “It’s not just something that we aspire to. It’s the way we’re built. It’s in our DNA.”

Donna Balkan is communications manager of the Canadian Co-operative Association and a long-time editor and broadcaster.


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