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.