UFA: the co-operative approach to technology validation

By 16 March 2020 5 min read

canola field and blue sky

Alberta officially became a province in 1905. Four years later United Farmers of Alberta Co-operative (UFA) was formed and has been operating ever since. When we talk about Alberta it would be nearly impossible not to include UFA in the conversation.

Today, UFA focuses on its No. 1 priority: rural Alberta. The co-operative has more than 110,000 active members that include ranchers, farmers and commercial entities. UFA has grown its membership successfully for 111 years, clearly showing their dedication to meeting the needs of their members. Despite the rapid pace of change in the last century (and even last decade), UFA remains an integral part of Alberta’s agriculture landscape and continues to invest in it’s future.

Moderating pace of change for Alberta farmers

“The real magic is finding what technology farmers value,” says Rob Giguere, UFA’s vice-president of Agribusiness. Through the use of 42 elected delegates, the co-op is able to keep a constant pulse on members’ needs and better understand the relevance and applicability of emerging innovations.

A number of those technologies aren’t just things that plug in. UFA has made a deliberate focus to give customers options when it comes to crop inputs including seed, fertilizer and crop protection products.

“Given our experience and direct contact with our farmer members … the pace of change has to be somewhat moderated through validation,” he says. “Where we add the value is commercializing that innovation because we have a well-established network.”

“We have to not only be seen as embracing innovation, but playing a role in it,” he says. “It’s about empowering our members.”

That delegate representation has helped the co-op not only survive, but thrive. By hearing directly from its members—working farmers, ranchers, truckers and more—on a constant basis, UFA has eyes and ears all over the province. The information sharing is second-to-none, and for Giguere, the critical feedback is what he values most.

“They’re not shy about giving management feedback,” he says of UFA’s delegates. “Feedback about products or services in various locations, that ongoing feedback loop helps us be more relevant. We are excited about meeting with our delegates formally throughout the year. It’s working quite well.”

The cooperative mentality: extracting relevance from innovation

The co-op has found a niche in their ability to come in right after the early adoption curve and commercialize various proven technologies.

Jonathan Neutens, Vice President, Agriculture at ATB agrees that co-ops can be effective enablers of adoption, “UFA and their ag-retail network are well positioned to validate and verify technologies in real farm situations, with real customers. They offer a scalable and significant connection in the feedback loop between agtech providers and the farm-gate, and to maintain this position they must be responsive to new technologies and change.”

To their core, the co-op is a community-centric organization, and Giguere believes that is why UFA has been able to flourish for more than a century. “That notion of cooperation, it’s not just a slogan, it’s how we do business everyday,” he says. “That matters to a lot of people. Our customer account managers, they’re from the community, they’re entrenched in the community. It’s completely built on trust and that takes a long time to establish.” Their member-owned structure plays a key role in steering UFA. Not only do members elect the delegates who represent and carry their voice, but they also have influence over policy decisions, co-operative bylaws and the election of UFA’s Board of Directors.

“Collaboration and cooperation will continue to advance the sector. We should not look to be competing with our neighbours, rather working together to allow Albertan and Canada to compete on the global stage. This is where the opportunity lies... whether in the production of commodities, technological advancements and validation, or in developing more value-added opportunities”, adds Sasha Musij, ATB’s Director of Agribusiness.

The next generation of farming: investing in future

One way UFA is listening to its members is by recognizing the massive potential new-school farming represents. To that end, the co-op partnered with Olds College, donating $500,000 to initiatives such as the Smart Farm, UFA Innovation Lab, UFA Innovation Day and The Pitch competition. The Smart Farm, a living, breathing, operational agricultural training centre will give students the most up-to-date farm experience when it comes to farming and ranching in 2020 and beyond.

“What Olds represents is a nice cross-section of crop production, livestock and feedlot,” he says. “The more we talked about it, the more natural [partnering] became. It made a tonne of sense.”

Through applied research, the Smart Farm at Olds College also strives to demonstrate technological functionalities to industry partners, essentially helping farmers to improve their operations season-over-season.

“Not only is Smart Farm investing in youth education and next-generation farming, the program also has the ability to showcase the potential financial benefits or return-on-investment of a technology,” says Jonathan Neutens. “For us, this type of data may have application to offering new financial products as a result of having better line of sight into production efficiency or risk measurement opportunities. They aren’t innovating just for the sake of innovation, this type of research can ultimately impact an operator's bottom-line and strategic partnerships.”

As we look to the future and the next-generation of farming, a major challenge for up-and-coming farmers and ranchers is the capital costs to enter the industry.

Identifying this as an issue, UFA and ATB worked together to provide lease terms on various purchases from the co-op. This partnership helped alleviate initial financial pressure so that new farmers could have a better financial outlook from the outset.

“Financing becomes a much bigger part of the equation,” he says. “We look for innovative solutions on financing,” says Giguere.

Going further, together.

With 191 years of experience combined, both UFA and ATB understand the economic importance of agriculture in this province and our ability to position ourselves as leaders in the industry. As the pace of change continues to intensify, it is our cooperative mentality that will be a continuous differentiator and beacon for growth.

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