Canadian Agricultural Co-operatives: Trends and Challenges, 1992-2008

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Thériault, Luc
Bent, David
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Measuring the Co-operative Difference Research Network
The agricultural sector in Canada comprises some of the oldest and largest co-operatives in the country. These co-operatives provide a variety of goods and services to farmers, including providing farm supplies, services and other support to agriculture, and processing and marketing of farm products. Despite this prominence with the co-operative sector, very few data analyses have been recently presented of on these co-operatives and this descriptive research intends to contribute to close that gap. Using survey data provided by the Rural and Co-operatives Secretariat of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the authors of this report focus on the 1992-2008 period and seek to identify some key trends in terms of the growth (or lack thereof) in the number of co-operatives, their volume of business, the size of their membership, as well as the number of Canadians they employ. More detailed financial information relating to surplus, assets, liabilities and equity are also examined for this period. In the end, the trends identified are discussed in view of how they might inform us on the challenges that agricultural co-ops will face in the next decade. (Note: Excluded from this study are co-ops involved in the agri-food sector and that do not have a direct link to farmers) The regional breakdown of trends shows a variety of results. National Trends are quite sporadic, at times up and at times down, and vary from sector to sector. The West, surprisingly given its agrarian history, shows a great deal of vulnerability. During the last two decades the post-war trend of farm consolidation and declining numbers continued, cutting into co-op members and profits. Furthermore, several prominent agricultural co-operatives have been privatized in recent years (aided by the predominance of neoliberal thought in the provincial governments), culminating in an overall trend of decline, although some show rough stability. Still, despite the decline in numbers and members, business volume shows signs of growth, or at least consistency. By contrast, Quebec shows consistent growth in all quarters. Business has been aided by Quebec co-operatives buying up co-operatives from outside the province, particularly in Ontario. Provincial governments, of all stripes, have also helped by providing friendly legislation. Ontario co-ops, more or less, show continuous growth in all quarters. Members, numbers, and business grow steadily throughout this time, although some prominent co-operatives have been privatized or bought out in this time. The Atlantic region shows the same trend of growth, but the region’s overall small size prevents its numbers from making much of an impact on the national numbers.