Before there were Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) and many other farm organizations that represent Manitoba farmers, there was the Red River Agricultural Association (RRAA).
It seems to have been the first agricultural association among Selkirk settlers. They were farming on narrow strips of land abutting the Red River. The narrow farms at least allowed them to see their neighbours occasionally and talk and suggest organizing to show strength in numbers. The farm group would have lobbied the Council of Assiniboia, the governing body before Manitoba became a province of Canada.
Little is known about the RRAA. It’s not even certain when exactly the association formed. But it is recorded as having received grants-in-aid in 1852 from Council of Assiniboia for unspecified programs. Some of the funds were for Red River farmers to purchase seed corn, that much is known. It’s possible monies were used for relief from the impact of the Red River flood that year, if there was any money for relief. The 1852 flood is the second worst on record, more severe than even 1997, and exceeded only by the 1826 flood.
It was the 1852 flood that prompted a number of settlers to move to the Portage la Prairie area the following year and start farming along the Assiniboine River. A dozen families made the move. In return, every family was required to pay local Indigenous band leader Chief Pakwahkikun a bushel of wheat each fall.[i]
However, the RRAA didn’t seem to make a lot of progress under the Council of Assiniboia, which governed an area extending 50 miles (80.5 km) in every direction from the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers (the new Portage farmers were outside that). Records show the council purchased 100 bushels of Black Sea seed wheat in 1847. Even earlier, it distributed strychnine so landowners could poison wolves. But there weren’t many farm programs.
Of note, three experimental farms were set up in those pre-Manitoba days. One was initiated by Lord Selkirk in 1817 to assess crops suited to the Red River area. At least 70 acres were under cultivation. But Selkirk died soon after in 1820, and his estate, not motivated by the same benevolence, discontinued the model farm.[ii]
The Hudson Bay Company (HBC) set up an experimental farm in 1830, initiated by Governor Simpson. It raised sheep, cows, and breeding mares, and cultivated hemp, flax and corn. The model farm contributed to livestock and horse populations in the settlement and demonstrated the viability of growing flax and hemp on Red River soils. It closed after only six years and HBC immediately opened a third experimental farm in 1836.
Yet there was ongoing frustration at the slow pace of farm production to replace the main dietary source back then, the bison hunt. It was more or less a static time for agriculture and policy development until the region entered confederation in 1870 and became Manitoba. Better growth followed from 1871 – 1882 under the Government of Manitoba, although still below what was the government viewed as the area’s potential.[iii] The disappearance of the bison and the hunter-gatherer economy it fostered also spurrted agricultural growth because it made food production more urgent.[iv]
By 1871, the postage stamp province (its borders were broadened in 1881 and 1912), which extended west of Plumas, and north as far as about Winnipeg Beach, had a population of 25,228, according to the Canada census of that year. About half of those people lived in the Red River settlement. Of those, about 10,000 residents were Métis and 500 were Indigenous. That left about 1,500 European settlers, according to the census.
In 1872, the provincial government passed legislation to facilitate the creation of agricultural societies. The societies were the farm groups of their day and were put in charge of a wide range of duties, from procuring improved grain seed and animals, to awarding ribbons for the most handsome livestock. The societies were assigned “generally to do everything that can contribute towards the progress and advancement of agriculture,” the legislation stated. The government committed to paying the societies double whatever they raised from farmer members. Other farm assistance mainly amounted to supplying farmers with seed grain.
The new government also wanted information. In 1880, the ministry that oversaw agriculture produced its first report since Manitoba became a province, announcing it would gather annual statistics “on all matters relating to agriculture in the province.” It had some preliminary data already, having recorded yields (but not acreages) of farmers who responded to questionnaires. For example, wheat showed an average yield of 26.5 bushels an acre from 1877 – 1879—enough to make your bank take over your farm in the year 2020—although 1880 was better with 29 bushels. Seeding and harvesting dates were part of the survey. Participating farmers also noted successful adaptation trials with crops like corn, timothy seed, flax, hemp, buckwheat, turnip, carrots and mangels (a variety of beet). The new farmers were also quite pleased by the ability of their cattle to withstand winter. This was important to the government as more beef was needed to offset the loss of bison. The government also noted it had begun drainage programs that not only reclaimed large areas of land but made it easier to make roads to connect settlements.
By 1881, the population of Manitoba was up to 62,000, only 10,000 of whom lived urban. About 250,000 acres were being cultivated. That still left 2.1 million acres of farmland unbroken, the report said.
There was a high turnover of farm ministers initially. The first, Hon. Thomas Howard, lasted just 10 days, while his successor, Hon. Alfred Boyd, appointed Jan. 23, 1871, lasted less than a year. He was succeeded by Hon. John Norquay, who stayed almost three years. The agriculture post, certainly for the first century, was one of the top portfolios and one often held by party leaders. In the case of Norquay, he would later become Manitoba’s premier from 1878 – 1887. He was Manitoba’s first and only Métis premier, and the first premier to be born in the Red River Colony.
An Hon. Edward Hay succeeded Norquay in the agriculture post in mid-1874 but was replaced in December by another well-known name, Hon. Colin Inkster. Inkster has a Winnipeg street named after him and his home off Main Street still stands as a museum today. But the farm minister kept changing hands for some reason, and Inkster didn’t even hold it for half a year.
It was also turning into the age of immigration for Manitoba. British, Ukrainians, Mennonites, Icelanders, Ontarians and even Americans moved onto the land to farm. Mennonites had an excellent reputation as agriculturalists and brought to the Prairies their housebarns, wheat seed (every nationality brought their wheat seed) and dryland farming techniques developed in the barren steppes of what was Russian-controlled Ukraine. About 7,000 Mennonites settled in the East and West reserves, the present-day areas of Steinbach and Altona areas.
To facilitate immigration, the agriculture and immigration portfolios were combined from 1890 – 1959. The two departments went hand in glove back then: agriculture was the vehicle to fill the province with immigrants, create a larger domestic market and turn the land into a social and economic resource.
LEADING POLITICIANS BECAME farm ministers, and farm leaders became politicians. That’s certainly been the case over the years.
The farm ministry had a much higher profile back in the day. Manitoba’s seventh premier, Liberal Thomas Greenway, was agriculture minister while premier from 1888 – 1890.
The same held for the ninth premier, Conservative Rodmond Palen Roblin. Roblin was both farm minister and premier from the time he named his first cabinet in December 1900, until October 1911, making him the second longest serving agriculture minister in Manitoba’s history. Hon. Valentine Winkler, for whom the City of Winkler is named because it was built on land he sold to the Mennonite community, was agriculture minister from 1915 – 1919 under the Liberal government of Hon. Tobias Crawford Norris. Winkler was a farmer known for integrity, and giving him a prominent post would help fan away the stench left from the previous government, the Liberals thought. The Roblin government had been brought down for accepting kickbacks in the form of “party donations” from contractors constructing the Legislative Building.
It was a very dynamic period in Manitoba’s history. To Roblin’s credit, he ran an incredibly effective government, ushering in an age of infrastructure. He oversaw the construction of a highway system, rail branchlines, grain elevators, countless public buildings in Manitoba towns, including the Ninette Sanitarium for tuberculosis treatment, and countless buildings in Winnipeg, like the legislature, the Law Courts, and the University of Manitoba. He also formed the first Crown corporation in the province, the Manitoba Telephone System. On the agricultural side, he broke the Canadian Pacific Railway’s (CPR) monopoly on freight rates by facilitating the construction of a Canadian Northern alternative rail line to the Lakehead, with Manitoba holding some control of freight rates within its borders. It was an enormous benefit to Western grain farmers. Of course, he is also famous for refusing to give women the vote, and the scandal over construction of the Legislative Building. His attempt at a publicly-owned system of grain elevators was also a disaster.
Valentine Winkler supported a tremendously progressive period in the farm ministry. He oversaw the Noxious Weeds Act, the Live Stock Purchase and Sale Act, the Farm Implement Act, and the Settlers’ Animal Purchase Act.The latter, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, was called the “Winkler cow scheme” and “provided one to five cows on the lowest terms of credit to needy settlers in the Interlake area.”
Manitoba’s longest serving farm minister was Liberal Douglas Campbell of Portage la Prairie. Campbell performed the rare feat of pole-vaulting from the farm ministry into the premier’s chair. A farmer and school teacher before he entered politics, not unlike fellow Portage la Prairie native and former premier Brian Pallister, Campbell was Manitoba’s longest serving farm minister from 1936 – 1948. He oversaw the rural electrification program during that time. He was premier from 1948 – 1958.
Progressive Conservative Harry Enns served twice as agriculture minister for a combined total of seven years. Enns was unique for being a converted farmer: raised in the city, he decided as a young man to make ranching his career and moved his young family to Warren in the Interlake. But like a lot of farmers, he needed an off-farm job. Enns was a Member of the Legislative Assembly for 37 years, serving the Lakeside riding for 34 years. It’s not a constituency that seems to like change. The only person who held a riding longer in Manitoba was the aforementioned Campbell, who served the same Lakeside riding for 43 years. Enns may also have been the only farm minister to have burned down a neighbour’s barn when a grass fire got out of hand.
New Democratic Party MLA Rosann Wowchuk of Swan River was agriculture minister almost as long as Campbell, 10 years from 1999 – 2009. She was also deputy premier, making her one of the highest profile farm ministers in recent times. She is the only woman to fill the role of agriculture minister in Manitoba, and represents half of the only sister-brother team to hold the post. Her brother, Leonard Harapiak, was farm minister for less than a year between 1987 – 1988.
In recent times, many KAP presidents have discovered a taste for politics and used their experience in the farm oganization almost as a training ground for provincial or federal politics. Jack Penner was KAP’s first president from 1984 – 1988, then went on to a distinguished career in provincial politics, first representing the riding of Rhineland and then Emerson for a combined total of 19 years. Penner served as minister of natural resources and rural development in Progressive Conservative Premier Gary Filmon’s government.
Don Dewar was KAP president from 1998 – 2002. He also entered politics later, running unsuccessfully in 2004 and 2006 for the federal Liberal Party in Dauphin-Swan River against Conservative incumbent Inky Marks. “I thought I would probably lose. I just didn’t think I would get my ass kicked that badly,” Dewar told this reporter after losing the second election campaign.
The federal riding, now Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa, is currently held by another former KAP president, Dan Mazier of the Conservative Party. Mazier was KAP president from 2014 – 2018.
Ian Wishart was KAP president starting in 2008 until making the jump into provincial politics with the Progressive Conservatives in 2011, and has represented the Portage la Prairie constituency since then. He served as education minister from 2016 – 2018. KAP postings are proving grounds for other jobs, too. Doug Chorney, president from 2011 – 2015, was appointed chief commissioner of the Canadian Grain Commission in 2021. General manager Patty Rosher was named assistant chief commissioner at the same time.
Even a KAP administrator was politically active. Bob Douglas was KAP general manager from 1984 – 1993, and general manager of the Manitoba Farm Bureau (MFB) before that. Many people remember Douglas fondly for his trademark brushcut and diabolical glee over whatever the political situation was that day. Douglas was a longtime Liberal and served politically in a completely different capacity from his day job at KAP: as a city councillor for the Stevenson-Grant’s Mill ward in Winnipeg from 1982 – 1992. He was inducted into the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2004.
MANITOBA’S LONGEST-SERVING PREMIER, John Bracken, didn’t even want to be premier. He was an agrologist and president of the Manitoba Agricultural College at University of Manitoba at the time of the 1922 election.
The fledgling United Farmers of Manitoba (UFM) was a political party thrown together and ran in 1922. The UFM only fielded candidates in two-thirds of the ridings, and didn’t even have a leader, presumably because it never expected to win. No one else did either. Shockingly, the UFM won 25 seats, the most of any party, and formed the government. Douglas Campbell was a young UFM candidate in Lakeside that year, taking two-thirds of the vote.
Party officials scrambled to come up with a leader and a short list of candidates was drawn up. The list included Bracken, even though he wasn’t involved in politics. It came out later that he hadn’t even voted in the 1922 election.
Bracken grew up on a farm in Leeds County, Ontario, but farmed in Manitoba on the banks of the Winnipeg River near the village of Great Falls.[v]
Bracken initially declined. How was he supposed to run the unruly populist party, and why would he want to? But farmers trusted him and even went so far as to conspire with Bracken’s wife to persuade him. He had to run a deferred election in The Pas before being sworn in as premier.
So Bracken, the reluctant politician, would become Manitoba’s longest serving premier, winning elections in 1922, 1927, 1932, 1936, and 1941. He led the province from 1922 – 1943. He would also hold the dual portfolio of premier-agriculture minister from 1923 – 1925 (and for a few months in 1936 on a fill-in basis). In fact, he never lost a provincial race in Manitoba.
The UFM was really like a general farm organization that turned to running candidates and exemplified how important it has been throughout Manitoba’s history for farmers to work together.
The UFM was a morphing of the Manitoba Grain Growers Association, forming in response to perceived unfairness by grain handling companies, nicknamed the Syndicate of Syndicates by farmers back then, and the grain exchange, dubbed the House with Closed Shutters. The grain exchange, farmers charged, was set up for the profit of traders, not the producers of the commodities they traded. UFM was most powerful in southwestern Manitoba, which held 40 per cent of the province’s farms and produced 60 per cent of the wheat from 1920 – 1923.[vi]
Actually, some UFM candidates already ran in the 1920 election and helped reduce Liberal Premier Norris’ government to a minority. Those farmers took nine out of 55 seats, one more than the Conservatives. Then the UFM delivered the coup de grâce in the 1922 election.
Going into the election, the UFM was considered a formidable protest party but not election-ready. Its victory in 1922 had similarities to the shocking win of the Edward Schreyer-led NDP almost 50 years later. Like the UFM, the NDP was also leaderless when the election began in 1969. That’s why Progressive Conservative Premier Walter Weir called it. NDP leader Russ Paulley had stepped down and the NDP’s leadership convention wasn’t scheduled for another six months. Instead, the party held a quickie leadership convention and nominated Schreyer halfway into the election campaign.
The UFM also fielded candidates federally with the United Farmers of Canada party. However, the national movement was more radical, and differed in one very significant way from the provincial ones: it allied with labour groups. The United Farmers of Canada would eventually morph into the National Farmers Union.
To run federally, the local UFM requested a $6 donation from farmers, which got you a UFM membership, a three-year subscription to the Grain Growers’ Guide (forerunner to the Country Guide), and support of the UFM’s political aspirations.
Arthur Meighen, the Conservative prime minister, and another Portage la Prairie native, branded the United Farmers as Bolshevists who promoted “freak governments and heterogeneous parliaments.” On the other hand, Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King said there was no difference between the Liberals and the United Farmers, so people should vote Liberal.
Meighen didn’t frighten voters. All 12 UFM members running in Manitoba won in the 1921 federal election, including in Portage la Prairie, defeating a sitting prime minister in Meighan no less. Liberal Mackenzie King formed the government but the United Farmers finished with 65 seats and became the Official Opposition.
Manitoba Liberal Premier Norris advanced the same argument as Mackenzie King. There was no appreciable difference between the UFM and the provincial Liberals, he said.
The United Farmers ran under the Progressive Party banner, similar to the UMF candidates. That is, once in office, the UFM rebranded its political arm as the Progressive Party of Manitoba, and the Progressives then became the affiliate of UFM. Part of the reason is UFM did not want to give the impression of being a party only concerned with furthering agricultural interests.
Manitoba’s Progressives were actually the third United Farmers organization to form a government in Canada. The United Farmers of Ontario won the most seats in the Ontario election in 1919 and formed a coalition government with the Independent Labour Party. The United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) ran in 1919 but it was the 1921 election that gave it a majority. The UFA held power in Alberta until 1935 but the Great Depression did it in. The United Farmers were defeated in Ontario in 1923 and never saw prominence again. The UFM in Manitoba had by far the most lasting success.
As mentioned, they called themselves the Progressive parties. The UFM, or Progressive Party, was neither left nor right politically, and didn’t give a hoot for left or right politics. It spurned the partisanship of the established parties. You might say UFM members were fiscal conservatives but organizational libertarians: they shunned the party structure in favour of voicing, and voting by, their personal convictions.
The UFM also spurned the old party machinery. That’s why it had no leader. Everyone was equal and could act independently. Once elected, members were always quick to note their lack of political experience. Nor were they very interested in becoming polished politicians.
Manitoba historian W. L. Morton summed up the political movement this way: “Progressivism was encumbered by no dogma save faith in the virtue of the people, and under its banners mustered the doctrines and causes current in the day, single tax, prohibition, co-operation, group government, socialism, pacifism, in short, secular evangelism in all its manifestations.”[vii]
Bracken, who they’d chosen as leader, was the same. He eschewed ideologues completely. He was regarded as a technocrat. The premise of the party was simply to be sage administrators. Rural Manitoba had far more seats during his time, too, more than 40 MLAs compared to just 10 for Winnipeg, which made staying in power easier.
But make no mistake. The UFM, or Progressive Party, was a revolt. Wheat prices had fallen 60 per cent from 1920 – 1922, while input costs continued to rise. Cries went out that farmers had to work 12-hour days to feed people who worked eight hours. The system was corrupt, in their view. The agrarian economy was suffering and distrust boiled over against merchants, bankers and politicians. Farmers accused leaders of deceit. “Agrarians stood together in the struggle for the wealth of society,” Gerald Panting wrote in his study of the movement. To the UFM, or Progressive Party, “industrial and financial groups, and more particularly, those which constituted the ‘big interests’ of the East, were defined as the enemy.”
They were not alone. A similar movement was sweeping the Canadian Prairies and the western plains of the United States. The influence was felt several years earlier, in 1916, when a movement called the Nonpartisan League (NPL) based in North Dakota, moved into Western Canada. “This organization ‘was a protest against underlying economic developments, which many Western farmers believed were evils inherent in a maturing capitalistic system.'”[viii] It’s footing in Manitoba was limited to only a few locals in the Swan River Valley, however.
The Grain Growers’ Guide became increasingly radical. In 1919, the magazine declared “the day of the autocrat, the czar, the warlord has passed away.” In its place was an agrarian movement. This “political prairie fire…sweeping over these provinces is the beginning of the new order,” the magazine said.[ix]
Fanning the flames was firebrand Aaron Sapiro, a Jewish American lawyer and co-operative activist. From 1915 – 1917, Sapiro and associates had organized 60 agricultural co-ops in the U.S. Farmers in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota had set up a grain marketing pooling system under Sapiro. He made people in power nervous. They regarded him as such a threat that the Dearborn Independent newspaper, owned by auto magnate Henry Ford, ran ads claiming Sapiro was a conduit for Jewish bankers to gain control of world food markets. Sapiro sued, claiming millions of dollars in damages, and Ford settled out of court and issued retractions.
In 1920, the Guide (Country Guide) began publishing articles on Sapiro and the “California Idea,” about how Sapiro helped establish co-operative marketing with numerous American commodity groups including fruit growers. Sapiro launched a speaking tour in Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1923, and in 1924 spoke to a packed house in downtown Winnipeg of more than 2,000 farmers.
Prairie farmers advanced their own co-operative marketing instruments like the Canadian Wheat Board, the wheat pools, and single desk marketing boards. Manitoba Pool Elevators (MPE) was founded in 1924 as the Manitoba Co-operative Wheat Producers Ltd. just two years after the UFM took power. UFM president C.H. Burnell became MPE’s first president. The Scoop Shovel, which later became the Manitoba Co-operator, formed at this time. The Manitoba Co-operative Dairies also started, with UFM lobbying the province for financial support. UFM was a big supporter of all farm co-ops.
It wasn’t all gravy. The debate over whether to continue with a wheat board market the federal government had instituted during the First World War as an emergency measure (it lasted from 1917 – 1920), deeply split the farm organization. The effort failed. The Canadian Wheat Board would not start up again until 1935, and membership in the UFM decreased from about 15,000 in 1922 to 3,000 by 1931.
Not long after winning a second successive term in office, the UFM’s Progressives merged with the Liberals (the Liberal Party back then was most closely aligned with farmers; the Conservatives were discredited by the Legislative Building construction scandal) to become the Liberal-Progressives. Later, showing his pragmatism and non-partisanship, Bracken formed a wartime coalition government that included Conservative, Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and Social Credit parties in 1941. Despite that, the federal Conservative Party came knocking.
Bracken agreed to run for the federal party’s leadership on one condition: the party changed its name to the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. It agreed. Bracken won the Conservative leadership in 1942, shortly before stepping down as premier, a position he held longer than any other head of government in the British Empire.[x]
Bracken’s undefeated electoral success came to an end when his party lost the federal election in 1945 to the federal Liberal Party, led by Mackenzie King. Representing the Neepawa riding, Bracken became Leader of the Opposition until he was forced out as party leader in 1948, having never won over Tories in Eastern Canada. He ran in Brandon in the 1949 election and lost his seat.
In Manitoba, the Progressives and Liberal-Progressives remained in power continuously until 1958, a span of 37 years, until Duff Roblin’s Progressive Conservatives swept to power. The Progressives had always dominated the Liberal-Progressive Party, which was renamed the Manitoba Liberal Party in 1961 and has never formed government again. Like with virtually every country in the Western world, once the centrist party is supplanted by the left, as happened with the provincial Liberal Party when the Schreyer-led NDP took power in 1970, it never recovers.
As for the UFM, it wasn’t long for the political world. Its premise had been the equivalent of pulling a bank job: get in, fix the system and get out in as short a time as possible and be back on the farm. The goals of the UFM of co-operative marketing had largely been achieved.
So farmers returned to their farms. Farmers have always held the dual status of working man and entrepreneur, and sometimes it’s the working man you see, and sometimes it’s the entrepreneur. But, with few exceptions, they hadn’t set out to be career politicians. In 1928, after two election victories, the UFM parted with the Progressive Party it founded and went back to being a farm organization. It would leave politics to the politicians. In 1939, the UFM became the Manitoba Federation of Agriculture, and, in 1965, the Manitoba Farm Bureau.
That’s not a reference to George Orwell’s dystopian novel about an authoritarian government that turns lies into truth. It’s a reference to the year when 25 meetings were held across Manitoba to gather grassroots support for a new general farm organization.
Manitou poultry producer Bert Hall chaired meetings, assisted by Earl Geddes, of the Diploma Agricultural Graduates’ Association, representing young farmers. Hall was the seasoned pro and Geddes the dewy-eyed producer from Pilot Mound working on a PhD in listening to farmers. He would become the second president of the new organization, called Keystone Agricultural Producers, in 1988.
The reason for meeting was because the Manitoba Farm Bureau (MFB) had gone up in flames, just as the Manitoba Federation of Agriculture had before it, and just as the United Farmers of Manitoba had before it.
Solomon Sinclair, a former agriculture professor at the University of Manitoba, said farm organization dissolutions were more frequent than marriage breakups. “The moment things start going bad—price drop, incomes drop—farmers become disenchanted with their organizations,” he told The Canadian Press in a 1983 interview. “Today, we are in the same mess again.”
But the MFB didn’t just go down like a barn fire but more like a heretic burned at the stake.
The MFB’s undoing occurred because of an idea floated by the federal Liberal government to change the way the Crow’s Nest Pass Freight Rate subsidy was paid out. The federal government announced it was capping the subsidy at its $650 million level, but farmers could have a choice how it should be paid: either continue to have it paid to the railways, lowering freight rates at the grain elevator or have it paid directly to farmers.
The argument to pay the railways meant status quo, only farmers’ freight rates would now increase with inflation, which was around six per cent at the time. The new option to pay cheques directly to producers had the potential to unleash new economic forces in the farm economy but it would mean higher freight rates and the optics were terrible.
The Prairies had always been at a disadvantage globally because of their distance from ports, and the government couldn’t see all that land and production going to waste. The Crow’s Nest Pass Freight Rate subsidized a significant part of the cost of moving grain to port. The grain freight subsidy dated back to 1897 when Ottawa gave CPR a $3.3 million subsidy to extend its line from the Crow’s Nest Pass in the Rockies to the Kootenay region of southern British Columbia. In return, the railway agreed to reduce grain freight rates “in perpetuity,” or forever, whatever ‘forever’ means contractually.
Of the two options floated by the federal Liberals in the early 1980s, the wheat pools, including MPE, wanted it paid to the railways to ensure grain farmers got the full benefit.
Many other farm interests didn’t share that view. That didn’t reflect reality, they said. Paying railways created an artificial economy propped up by subsidies. That is, paying the railways promoted shipping the grain away instead of seeing it processed locally, with ‘processing’ meaning everything from milling to feeding livestock.
The argument for paying it out to farmers was it would be less distorting; it would allow true market signals to emerge, perhaps even flourish, after being buried for decades beneath subsidy-distorted marketing. Putting the money in farmers’ hands allowed them to choose how to ship their commodities, if they chose to ship them, and would make seeding intentions more market-driven. Therefore, the freight subsidy should be paid to livestock producers, as well, on a per-acre basis.
The farm bureau became increasingly bold about promoting the pay-out option, despite the opposition of Manitoba Pool Elevators. MPE represented 37,000 members and eight representatives with the MFB.
Ste. Agathe producer Lorne Parker, a workhorse in farm politics, was the farm bureau’s president and pushed hard for a payout to farmers. A little too hard, in the minds of MPE’s leadership, headed by Wallace Fraser. The wheat pool pulled out in 1982 and took half of the MFB’s funding with it.
A year later, United Grain Growers (UGG), with four reps and also significant funding, did the same but it was less clear why UGG favoured the MFB’s position of direct payments. UGG didn’t just pull out of the Manitoba Farm Bureau but from all farm organizations, including the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, saving itself $200,000. It claimed it was taking a “leave of absence,” whatever that meant. That absence included UGG President Lorne Hehn declining a dinner invitation to farm leaders from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to discuss the Crow Rate.
The withdrawal of the two grain co-ops underlined the big problem with the MFB: it was funded mainly by grain companies. Finally, the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association cut back most of its funding, too. It was reported the cattle association withdrew because of financial troubles, but it couldn’t have been happy with the outcome of the Crow Rate debate. In the final analysis, Transport Minister Lloyd Axworthy, taking over from predecessor Jean-Luc Pepin, who had initiated the discussion, found the issue too divisive and decided to just continue paying the railways.
SO BERT HALL and Earl Geddes chaired 25 meetings across Manitoba in January 1984, and were encouraged by the response. About 1,400 farmers turned out; most of them filled out a questionnaire and said the committee should keep going. That called for another round—of meetings, not drinks. The farm organization committee travelled the province again in April seeking membership funding and delegates.
This farm organization would differ from the MFB in one very fundamental way: membership would pay its way. No more relying on the big companies to pay the freight, so to speak. No one likes going around hitting people up for paid memberships but there was no other way. The actions of MPE and UGG had shown that.
As far as structure, a dozen delegates were elected at the meetings. By the end of April, the unnamed new organization had 500 paid members. The first general council met on June 15 and an executive committee of 16 individuals was chosen—one from each of the 12 geographic districts, and one from each of four commodity group members.
A name for the new entity also emerged out of 10 candidates: Keystone Agricultural Producers, or KAP.
It’s a solid name. It also makes a great, user-friendly acronym: KAP, a one syllable word, whereas MFB, if you tried to say it as one word, which no one dared do, sounded like you were mumbling gibberish—”muhfabuh.” The new acronym also added new meaning to a common word, or at least a common phonetic, that already had several: something you wore on your head, a level you couldn’t surpass, something you screwed onto the end of a pipe, and a tipple at the end of a day. Now it also meant the most important voice in Manitoba’s farm politics.
After that June meeting, a committee was struck to draft a constitution and bylaws, which were gone over again in the fall and adopted. Meanwhile, the MFB had not yet permanently closed shop but was waiting in the wings to see whether KAP would become a reality. In October, comfortable that it had a successor, the MFB emptied its desk drawers for good.
KAP’s inaugural general meeting was held in Winnipeg in January 1985. It was a triumphant occasion, as reported by the Manitoba Co-operator’s Allan Dawson, even though KAP had only 750 paid members. They hailed poultry farmer Bert Hall as the organization’s founding father. Not an attention-seeker, nor loquacious or charismatic, but a straight arrow and a wise counsel and thoughtful speaker, Hall was given a standing ovation. Many others helped with the spadework of forming KAP, including Halbstadt farmer Jack Penner, Jack Nesbitt of the University of Manitoba School of Agriculture, Earl Geddes and fellow agriculture diploma grad, Reg Dyck. Penner was elected president, Geddes vice-president, and more than 50 resolutions were discussed. A new grassroots organization wholly run and funded by members had been christened.
At that same inaugural meeting, then Agriculture Minister Bill Uruski offered some advice. He warned KAP against debating in the media. Government would freeze it out if it did. For all the valuable service media provides, it is more often a polarizing influence in negotiations. KAP has wisely followed Uruski’s advice, and that has raised its standing with governments.
One of KAP’s first triumphs was to get the federal government to call off auditors over a machinery tax credit the government offered to stimulate farm equipment sales. Granted, some sweetheart deals were made by inflating the value of trade-ins to maximize the sale price and tax credit. But if that was what equipment dealers were offering, why blame farmers? Who wouldn’t take those deals? The government’s actions made it sound like farmers were tying kerchiefs across their faces and pulling stick-ups across the land. KAP’s threat of legal action if the federal government tried to claw back the money helped convince the feds to back down.
KAP registered 3,000 memberships that the first year. In 1992, after a big membership drive, it got up to 6,000 members. That fell to 3,900 in 1995. Today, it has 5,500 members, despite there being less than half as many farmers as when it began in 1985. Although the 2016 Canada census says there are 15,000 farms in Manitoba (20,000 farm operators), many only sell a small quantity of farm produce. According to KAP’s numbers, there are really about 6,000 commercial farms in Manitoba, meaning those who derive significant sales from their farm. However, there may be several farmers associated with an individual farm.
KAP wouldn’t have its membership level today without the checkoff, of course. At the outset, having to collect memberships every year was worse than being a paperboy going door to door to sign up new subscriptions in the internet age. The government rejected a legislative checkoff the first year and the issue dragged on. It couldn’t be a mandatory checkoff; producers would need the ability to opt out. Commodity groups already had checkoffs in place, much of which was used to fund research.
KAP persisted. In late 1989, The Agricultural Producers Organization Funding Amendment Act was given first reading in the Manitoba Legislature. It wasn’t until 1991 that mechanisms were implemented to permit KAP to collect a checkoff. KAP had secured stable funding, instead of having to survive hand to mouth each year.
Today, KAP’s checkoff is the envy of farm groups across Canada. “The thing that KAP has that is unique among its brothers and sisters across the country, because every province has a general farm policy organization, is we’re funded by a checkoff, which is great,” said Patty Rosher, KAP general manager, before her departure to the Canadian Grain Commission. “So KAP is unique in that way and it gives it that solid footing.”
Whenever someone sells a farm product, the “designated purchaser” has to deduct one per cent of the value and forward it to the farm group, up to a cap of $250. The mechanism for the checkoff is cumbersome and has been tinkered with and could always use improvement but it beats annual membership drives.
Some farmers opt out, and so do some commodity groups. Manitoba Beef Producers opted out in 2008, but many in agriculture just see that as beef producers being beef producers—they want to go their own way. None of the beef groups in Western Canada belong to a general farm organization. In 2020, about seven per cent of individual farmers opted out of KAP, or nearly 400, and got their checkoff back. The previous year it was about five per cent.
KAP wants as big a tent as possible but some people still end up sleeping outside. Often it’s farmers retiring and getting out of business who opt out, but some farmers don’t agree with the concept of giving money to a farm policy group. Or, some will disagree with a particular position KAP took, or don’t feel KAP advocated for them on a particular topic.
That’s the challenge. “We have to go across the political spectrum,” Rosher said. “Most of our political farm groups in Canada, the National Farmers Union, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers, are on one side or the other, and it’s good to have that unfettered voice for the right or left, but we have to incorporate all those voices into a single position.”
General farm organizations have different structures across the country. In Ontario, producers must belong to a general farm organization if they want to benefit from government farm programs but it doesn’t have to be the Ontario Federation of Agriculture; it could be the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, for example. Saskatchewan has a unique system where rural municipalities are members of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan. The Alberta Federation of Agriculture (AFA) is just membership-based, with no checkoff, so even though the province has double the number of farmers as Manitoba, the AFA is smaller than KAP and doesn’t have the numbers or financing to be as influential.
KAP has accomplished much for farmers. In recent years, it helped convince the Manitoba government to rebate 80 per cent of education tax on farmland, up to $5,000 per year. It also offers member benefits including health and dental plans, and a cell phone plan that KAP says saves a member almost enough to cover their membership fee.
Over its history, it has provided input on all kinds of policy, including various farm income stabilization programs. Former KAP president Ian Wishart introduced Alternate Land Use Services (ALUS), a reward system for farmers who engage in environmentally sustainable practices. Rather than blustering, pointing fingers and issuing fines on some farm practices, Wishart’s program introduced an incentive-based system. The program is still in place and pays compensation for practices like allowing land along waterways to return to natural vegetation.
KAP is also a conduit not just between farmers and government but with the general public. KAP presidents and directors are prompt at returning reporter inquiries and putting members’ views on policy in the public eye.
There’s always more work to do. Today, it’s the carbon tax. KAP wants an exemption for fuel used for drying grain, and for heating and cooling barns, no different than the exemption in place for greenhouses. So far, only fuels used in tractors and combines are exempt. KAP estimates corn producers alone paid $1.7 million in carbon tax to dry their crop in 2019. A typical farmer growing 500 acres of corn spends more than $14,000 on fuel for drying, with $1,700 of that from the carbon tax.
These costs will go up. The federal carbon tax increases $10 per year and will reach $50 per tonne in 2022; then it will increase $15 annually and climb to $170 per tonne by 2030. The carbon tax is to give market-like incentive to seek alternatives to fossil fuels but for essential parts of agriculture there are no alternatives to fossil fuels, and farmers are price-takers, not businesses that can pass on their cost increases.
KAP would also like more representation from smaller commodity groups and direct farm marketers, whose numbers have grown over the years but who are at the other end of the spectrum in terms of scale in size and use of inputs compared to commercial farmers.
“A lot of younger farmers coming into the industry are often coming in from market gardening, direct farm marketing avenues, so I’d really like to get those guys more involved in KAP. I think that will be healthy for the future of the organization.”
“On a Saturday night, my grandma would get on the train at the local elevator and go six miles into town and she would sell her eggs to the ladies she sold to, and use some of her money to take her family to the movies, and then hop on a train and come home. And I just love to think about that. I mean, there has always been direct farm marketing.”
KAP already has the Prairie Fruit Growers Association on board. That’s the body representing U-Pick growers. That’s very direct farm marketing, said Rosher.
JAKE AYRE CAN see KAP President Bill Campbell’s farm from his window a mile away.
So it’s natural for people to assume that’s how Ayre got involved in KAP: Campbell bent his ear, twisted his arm, wrestled him to the ground and then trussed him to a hay wagon and hauled him off to a KAP meeting.
Ayre said his affiliation began while getting his diploma in agriculture at University of Manitoba. The course involved people from the industry, Manitoba Agriculture and KAP coming in as guest speakers.
The KAP representative explained what the farm organization did, how policy and resolutions were made and handed out a survey for the class to prioritize which issues in agriculture concerned them most. Then the class was invited to bring a resolution to KAP’s annual meeting.
So the class made a resolution and Ayre “and two other gingers (‘redheads’ Carter McKinney and Bailey Sigvaldason)—I make a lot of ginger jokes”—presented their resolution, debated it and saw it passed. It was a resolution on the carbon tax.
Ayre was fascinated by the process. “There was a whole lot of back and forth. Obviously, people feel very strongly about that subject. For me, it was just interesting to be involved in that process from start to finish.” It’s now part of KAP’s policy and being pushed at the highest levels of government.
Ayre was sold. Many young people today think being politically active is just posting something on social media “and it’s not,” Ayre said.
“My parents always ingrained in me that if you want to make a change, speak up. The stuff that’s being talked about now in farm policy will affect my farm five, 10, 15 years down the road. It will be law. It will be regulation. So I got involved at a young age because this is my future,” said Ayre.
Young age? If not for the scruffy beard they might not let him into KAP meetings. “It’s my secret. If I didn’t have facial hair, I’d look like I was 12,” he joked, talking on his Bluetooth while driving his truck. He’s 24.
Not only is he farming at so young an age, and not only is he involved in farm politics to protect and advance his farm, he was recently made KAP’s vice-president. You can pick yourself up off the ground now.
Ayre represents the youth movement in KAP and Manitoba farming. Demographics always show an aging farm population but Manitoba now has the second youngest farm population in the country. The average age of farmers in Manitoba in the 2016 census was 53.8 years, second only to Quebec’s 52.9 years. They are the only two provinces with an average age below the national average of 55 years.
From 2011 – 2016, the proportion of farmers 55 years and older actually increased in Manitoba by 52 per cent. But that was largely neutralized by the surge of young farmers under 35 years of age. About 11 per cent of producers were under the age of 35 in 2015.
Again, that’s using Census Canada’s broad definition of farmers, how it arrives at roughly 15,000 farmers in Manitoba, whereas KAP would say there are really about 6,000 commercial farms. And the 15,000 undoubtedly captures the wave of direct farm marketers that have been springing up and whose gross sales don’t come close to those of more commercial farms.
Even so, it’s the same data-gathering across the country, so the figures still indicate a healthy increase of young people in Manitoba agriculture.
On the other hand, the farm population in Canada now makes up less than two per cent of Canadians, and 3.7 per cent, or 52,000 of Manitoba’s 1.4 million people. Back in 1922 when farmers formed the government in Manitoba, there were five times as many people, 250,000, living on farms. About 40 per cent of the province’s 610,000 people lived on farms back then.
“We’re seeing fewer farmers but in Manitoba, we’re seeing a resurgence and growth in different sections, like small farms under 200 acres,” Ayre said. “In my opinion, you’re seeing people come back. I think there is opportunity there.”
It’s not as if KAP president Campbell didn’t have any influence on Ayre. “Bill’s been a mentor my whole life,” he said. “We farm so close together and have shared resources and labour over the years.”
Ayre runs a cash crop and pedigreed seed operation near Minto—2,200 acres with his parents, and he rents half a section on his own. Ayre’s family arrived from England, where they were livestock and crop farmers. “Canada is still regarded as a land of opportunity, one of the few places left in the world where you can arrive with nothing and make a life for yourself,” said Ayre.
He started his KAP affiliation as a district committee secretary and then joined the Manitoba Young Farmers program that provides networking and learning opportunities for young farmers. During his time, he helped start a young farmer policy committee whose members now advise on policy issues. The greatest issues for young farmers include access to land and capital but also how to maintain public trust, Ayre said.
As for the carbon tax, Ayre feels farmers should be exempt on fossil fuel use where they can’t pass on the cost, like with heating livestock barns, grain drying, and fertilizer use. It’s time farmers were “recognized for the stewards of the land that we are. We do provide good environmental benefits, carbon sequestration with our crops, and the grazing of pastures by cattle and other livestock.”
GRAIN FARMER ANDY MELNYCHENKO was 32 in 2020. He started farming after graduating with a diploma in agriculture from the University of Manitoba in 2009.
Farming for him is almost a calling. “I don’t think my parents discouraged me from farming but they didn’t necessarily encourage me to farm either. You just have a passion for it, I guess.”
You have to because it will put a person through the wringer. “I don’t think you could go through the stress of farming without having that drive. It would be too much to overcome if you didn’t love what you’re doing,” Melnychenko said.
It’s not unusual for young farmers to be carrying debt in the $4 – $5 million range, and Melnychenko says he’s no different. Those kind of dollar figures would be mind-boggling to just about any other person his age, yet that is contemporary farming. Most young people can’t imagine being so heavily leveraged.
“The amount you have to borrow just to get your feet on the ground. My parents didn’t have a whole lot of land base (900 acres of crop land) for me to get started so I rented a bunch of land, and bought a bunch of land.”
Most of his asset value has come from land appreciation in recent years. “If you ask my dad, or any of the older generation, I probably got in at the best possible time. The last 10 years in agriculture have probably been the 10 best consecutive years there has been,” he said.
But there’s always pressure to produce and pay interest and input costs. He has to sell up to $1.2 million of crop ($400 an acre to cover land, equipment and input payments) just to break even. That’s on 3,000 acres, half of which is rented.
“It’s almost like a circle. You get more land, you need more equipment, then you need more land to spread those equipment payments over,” he said.
But he’s his own boss, and he’s doing what he loves. Melnychenko farms with his wife and two young boys near Grandview. His wife, Jennifer, has a degree in agriculture—they met at University of Manitoba—and works as a product systems specialist with eight or nine John Deere dealerships.
Like with everyone in farming, the carbon tax, and what farm groups like KAP can do to mitigate it, is top of mind with Melnychenko.
He doesn’t have a grain dryer but he’s heard stories about the carbon tax on propane for those who do. “For me, gas or diesel fuel is exempt. Where I can’t recoup cost is getting a commercial guy to haul grain. He has to pass his carbon tax onto the farmer, so the farmer ends up paying more to haul.” Same with the railways passing along their extra cost, he said.
He would like to see farmers rewarded for sequestering carbon, meaning all the carbon dioxide their crops take out of the air and put back into the ground. “So we’re actually taking emissions out of the air and turning it into food. We’re doing more of that than emitting.”
He feels a big issue on the horizon is labour force and not just for vegetable farms or hog barns but on grain farms. Retired farmers can come out and operate a combine but they won’t be around forever. He isn’t convinced driverless, robotic tractors are the answer.
“You can have all the land and machinery in the world but nobody to run it. That’s a huge issue,” he said.
[i] The Ministry of Agriculture in Manitoba, by J.H. Ellis, 1971, Manitoba Department of Agriculture.
[v] Macleans magazine, Feb. 1, 1943.
[vi] “A Study of the United Farmers of Manitoba to 1928,” by Gerald Panting, University of Manitoba thesis, 1954.
[vii] “Direct Legislation and the Origins of the Progressive Movement,” by W. L. Morton, CHR, XXV (September, 1944), p. 279
[viii] Panting, “A Study of the United Farmers of Manitoba to 19280,” University of Manitoba thesis, 1954.
[ix] Grain Growers Guide, May 14, 1919, as quoted in Panting thesis
[x] Manitoba Encyclopedia, (Geoff Lambert), Great Plains Publications, 2007.