Farm Organizations...is a Future Futile?

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General farm organizations in Saskatchewan have had a colourful, and in some instances coloured, past. They have followed some interesting patterns - often established in the face of poor economic circumstances, their membership structure based loosely on some past organization's structure, and (most importantly) governed by, and only by, producers themselves. Ultimately, the demise of these organizations has also followed similar patterns - dilution of their focus or objectives and declining membership to the point of insolvency.

At least some of the organizations representing Saskatchewan producers today seem to be cut from much the same mold. Both the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) and the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association (SSGA) have suffered organizational strife of their own in the recent past. In the case of APAS, these troubles have seemed to plague their entire short existence. Formed in 2000 as the province's general farm organization, the association has seen its way through six changes in executive management, as many turnovers in key staffing positions, the resignation of a president, and as recently as yesterday, a vice president. The association is also experiencing other growing pains. In six years, APAS managed to recruit nearly 40 per cent of its membership base (a number often criticized as being too low for the organization to gain credibility as 'the voice' for Saskatchewan producers); this number has now declined to less than one-third of eligible members.

Similar organizational problems have also plagued the SSGA in recent months. In a bizarre chain of events, internal turmoil resulted in the dismissal of the organization's management, removal of the Board chair and re-hiring of the previously dismissed executive director by the Board, and then the membership's subsequent re-seating of the previously removed Board Chair. The organization is now in the process of working with new management to repair the damage caused by the internal struggle. The SSGA, in the meantime, also deals with lagging membership numbers and defending their credibility as an organization that in fact does represent the perspectives of cattle producers.

It needs to be stressed that not all producer organizations are experiencing difficulties, nor that these difficulties are a permanent feature of producer organizations. For instance, organizations that have been formed to administer producer check-offs and organize R&D are generally working well. And organizations that have been fraught with problems, such as the Chicken Farmers of Saskatchewan and the Broiler Hatching Egg Producers', appear to be turning things around.

Given this pattern, what is it that can be inferred about farm organizations in Saskatchewan? First, policy organizations generally have greater problems than do organizations formed to fund research. Part of the reason for this is the heterogeneity of agriculture - trying to put forward policy recommendations that meet with the approval of most members - is much more difficult than funding research that largely benefits everyone. But more seems to be at work than just the difficulty of finding a common policy. In a number of cases the policy associations appear to be a forum for turf wars for different groups, places where ideas, viewpoints and influence are fought over.

Second, it would seem that the now-standard basic governance model is not being followed in many of the organizations facing troubles. This basic model is one where the board of directors sets its objectives, defines the role of those involved in accomplishing the objectives, and puts in place accountabilities for achieving the goals.

But why is this model not being followed? There are several reasons that suggest themselves. Are producers (otherwise known as farmers and ranchers) who are essentially the board and management of their own operations unwilling to set goals and direction - and trust that someone else will make the appropriate decisions to accomplish those goals? Perhaps the difficulties of farm organizations come from the way in which their boards are elected. Are the best people (most qualified, most experienced) encouraged to run for board positions? Are there clear criteria or job descriptions set out for board positions so appropriate candidates can run? Is there sufficient competition for board positions? Are the criteria such that producers who have busy operations of their own are unwilling to devote the time to the necessary to meet those expectations?

One observation is that many of the boards are structured so that all positions are elected from the membership base; no board positions are designated to bring in outside expertise such as a governance expert, a chartered accountant or an industry representative. Does this lack of outside representation focus the attention of the participants on internal issues and individual agendas, thus creating conditions for turf wars? Does the homogeneity of board membership create a general unwillingness to bring in new ideas, or expand their knowledge of and respect for good board governance?

Does the expectation that the organization is likely to be the site of turf wars and unlikely to be run according to good governance principles drive away those that are interested in a different and more effective model, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or is the problem linked to the loss of other forums in which good governance practices can be learned - forums such as local 4-H clubs, churches, co-ops, school and hospital boards, and service clubs?

Given the challenges facing primary producers at the current time, strong and effective farm organizations are critical. But, as history and present day events have shown, the creation of such organizations cannot be taken for granted. A great deal of work is required to ensure that farm organizations operate effectively. As in the corporate world where governance has become the issue, so too in the farm organization world must governance be addressed.

This blog entry was authored by Lynette Keyowski. To read additional Illative Blog entries or to leave comments on this entry, please visit www.illativeblog.ca. The Illative Blog is an initiative by the Knowledge Impact in Society (KIS) Project based out of the University of Saskatchewan. Email correspondence can be sent to kis.project@usask.ca

3 Comments

Darrin Qualman said:

Dear Lynette,

Thanks for your insightful comments. There is much in what you say. I would like to suggest, however, that there is an alternative to the goal-setting Board of Directors you advocate. The National Farmers Union has been an extremely successful farm organization--in Saskatchewan, and across Canada. Longevity of service, for both staff and elected officials, is high, and moral is very good. And our Board of Directors is hands-on. Elected farmer Board members help set direction and strategy, and they also do much of the work. This is a strength for our organization. We're an organization that helps farmer (elected officials and members alike) collectively and democratically make progress on farmers' struggles. Farm organizations need not adopt the corporate governance model. Farm organizations are democratic people's organizations. The NFU proves that a democratic, collective, activist model works. Thank you for raising this issue.

Darrin Qualman
Director of Research
National Farmers Union

Paul Beingessner said:

I agree with many of Lynette's comments about the structure of these boards. But there is one board that seems to function rather better than APAS, and that is SARM. I realize that the mandate is different as SARM is not solely a policy and lobby group, but one thing that has been lacking on the APAS board seems to be any training in professionalism. I think SARM works at this, as did boards like the old SWP. The antics that have occurred inside APAS are shameful, and, quite frankly, have made that board a laughingstock amoung other organizations. That reps can't see that and make substantial changes is a sorry point of amazement for me.

It seems that APAS delegates are often there not because they are chosen as the best of the lot, but because they are the only one from the RM who is willing to do it. This doesn't lead to the best delegates. I knew one delegate who was unaware, for example, that the NFU and the WCWGA still existed. I think APAS board and reps are undercompensated, and that doesn't help. The compensation for reps is not adequate to replace the time lost on the farm.

It may be that many RMs are too small to find really good candidates to be reps.

Lastly, I wonder why KAP does such a good job? What does it have that APAS doesn't?

Clinton Monchuk said:

Although some farm organizations have had colourful pasts many have made it through trying times and changed or adapted with their evolving membership.

There are really two different types of farm organizations: the general farm group, consisting of a variety of farmers throughout a set geographical region, and the commodity specific farm organization, very homogeneous in membership. I've had the privilege over the past five years or so to work with two of the most successful general farm organizations in North America, the National Farmers Union (American version) in Washington, DC and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture in Ottawa, ON. The process for success in these organizations was that directors receive grass-roots policy from their regional membership (state or provincial), the entire board has the ability to discuss and accept or reject the policy and the accepted policy is dictated to employees. The employees' responsibility is then to successfully achieve that policy objective. Thus, a well functioning organization exists where producers on the ground feel that their voices are being heard by politicians and government.

General farm organizations have achieved many successes, partially due to their ability to act on the policy changes that their membership requires. Key to this success is that these organizations hire appropriate employees to manage the organization and accomplish the goals set out by the membership. So, if this works in some general farm organizations, what is the missing ingredient in others that are struggling? Is it perhaps that the Board of Directors of these organizations (largely farmers, but also the hiring agents for executive positions) feel that higher levels of compensation for these employees is not needed? Is it that they as elected officials of the organization feel that they can do the job, perform the tasks and carry out the duties of the organization better and more effectively? Former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle seems to suggest otherwise. During one NFU lobby event in Washington, DC Senator Daschle made the comment that the NFU is getting their message across to the U.S. Congress - and he realizes that people like Tom Buis (the then appointed VP for the NFU) don't come cheap! The same rationale has existed in the business world for years - you get what you pay for. Is one of the downfalls for general farm organizations, then, that they are unwilling (or unable) to provide adequate compensation to attract the most qualified talent available to achieve their objectives?

With respect to commodity specific organizations, they tend to have more defined goals. Consider the supply managed commodity groups in the dairy and poultry sectors. A significant majority of farmers who participate in those organizations are in complete support for what their organizations are doing, allowing continued success. A focussed, well managed approach to the challenges that have been brought forth by their members usually has resulted in policy changes in Ottawa or a strong presence in Geneva for trade rules that will continue to allow their system to function. Is this sense of satisfaction due to the fact that these organizations do rally around a homogeneous cause? Or is it that, in the supply managed sector, producers have recognized the need to be cohesive and aligned in their policy objectives to protect the support their sector needs to remain competitive on a global basis? In the case of supply managed sectors, who are constantly under fire in the international arena, have those organizations rationalized the time required to aggressively defend their industry�s position in Canadian and international agriculture arenas with the time requirements of their own organizations? Is it that they have a greater sense of support for the policies that keep them successful that they are willing to commit more trust and resource to their staff members?

Farm organizations have been created for well defined reasons. The functioning of a strong, successful farm organization lies within the elected directors and qualified employees.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynette Keyowski published on January 10, 2008 11:54 AM.

Rural-Urban Symbiosis was the previous entry in this blog.

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