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The Story of the First 25 Years

Twenty-five years ago the cooperative movement was, by no means, new. Cooperatives had been a part of American life for years, to say nothing of Europe's cooperatives. The basic principles of cooperative success had been firmly established.

Twenty-five years ago the founders of UCF were busy studying cooperative history and admiring the accomplishments of others. Our approach to cooperatives usually started from the Rochdale pioneers who began heir humble enterprise in 1844, out of which developed a gigantic business. The birth of the Rochdale cooperative has been described in the following words: "on a foggy, dismal, fall day, some twenty of the poorest of poor textile workers decided to become shopkeepers and manufacturers".

By a coincidence the organizing meeting of UCF was also held in the fall of the year, on November 19-20, 1927, at the darkest period of the year. The meeting was not held in a palatial building, but in the modest hall of the farmers in New Ipswich, New Hampshire. It was attended by some ten delegates from various farming communities surrounding Fitchburg who were farmers of small means.

There were similarities in the efforts of the poor textile weavers and the small farmers. In both instances the pioneers had an essential requisite: a basic need. In both instances they met on their own initiative to accomplish cooperatively that which they could not achieve individually. Similarly both groups had a background in the labor movement and believed in working together. And both groups of pioneers were at the bottom of the social ladder so that only they, could help themselves.

Cooperatives operate for a different purpose than do most businesses. The purpose of a co-op is to meet the needs of its members and patrons whereas the purpose of non-cooperative business is to make a profit on the needs of its patrons. In a cooperative the net savings is returned to the patrons according to their patronage after a limited interest is paid to capital. Furthermore, the farmers have a voice in shaping the policies of the co-op. Because of these basic differences in purpose there was considerable hostility to our co-op, particularly by those who had benefited before the co-op was organized. For this reason the going in those early days was hard and rough.

The organization of United Cooperative Farmers was begun entirely on the initiative of the farmers. They had the assistance of two Finnish American labor papers (Eteenpain and Raivaaja) which the farmers considered, and rightly so, should give them the publicity they needed. At the organization meeting of UCF representatives of the two papers were present. The newspapermen sat by while the farmers laid the foundation for their association. Both papers were generous with publicity of the meeting and their columns were always open to UCF. Their staff members continued to attend meetings of UCF and were called upon to assist in the drafting of by-laws and incorporation without benefit of a legal adviser.

It should be mentioned here that in the incorportion of United Cooperative Farmers, a pioneering job was done for the cooperative movement. UCF, as it is commonly known, is a federation of farmer locals, that own the association. A provision was written into the by-laws which, still remains in the by-laws, that each local shall have as many votes as the number of shares it owns, provided that there are 25 members for each share, or the major portion thereof. To obtain approval to include such a provision in the by-laws required lengthy correspondence with the officials of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts before they would give their assent to it. The state officials contended that each local should have one, and only one vote, no matter how much money had been invested or how many members the local had. To us this was not fair nor just so we stuck stubbornly to our point until we were able to convince the state officials and got their approval.

The small farmer of twenty-five years ago was practically on a beggar's level and the only way that he could survive on his modest farm was to look for work as a laborer to assure an income, and farm in his spare time. It not only required strenuous effort on his part but that of his whole family, and he had to deny himself many necessities of life. To get his products to the market and receive a fair price for them was almost impossible. He very seldom received enough to cover cost of raising his products. On the other hand, supplies that he needed on the farm were exorbitantly high and often of a low grade, and even difficult to obtain.

Regardless of all the obstacles, UCF has forged ahead without deviation along the path set by these early members. Marketing of the farmers' products has been undertaken. The needs of the farmers have been met with quality merchandise at a fair price; such as seeds, feeds, machinery, building supplies, home appliances, and equipment for the modern farm.

When the farmer of twenty-five years ago approaches; the present fine, modern facilities of UCF - with its feed mill, poultry dressing plant, building and farm supply departments - surely a feeling of tremendous pride and joy must come to him, and the thought must cross his mind: "This is my mill ... these plants are mine. Those employees there of the second generation, who wait on me, are my employees, and I'm the boss. I go to my own plant, I build and strengthen it."

As modest as was the beginning of UCF, its achievements of a quarter of a century cannot be adequately measured. Its achievements cannot be measured alone in financial statements, for comparatively little is to be seen from them. They do not show the quality of goods, nor can the moral force be appraised from them. Neither do they show how co-op plants and facilities have forced competitors to return to reasonable price levels thus bringing benefit to the entire community to which the services of UCF extend.

During the decades that I was active in the Finnish-American labor movement I have always been favorably disposed toward cooperatives and sympathetic to the farmers. Essentially the wage earner and the small farmer can solve many of their problems through their own organizations. Though I have also been a paid worker in the labor movement, I feel that my most valued reward has come from the United Cooperative Farmers, by whom I have never been employed. Twenty-five years ago, when with my limited ability, I had the opportunity to help United Cooperative Farmers in its birth and organization, I hadn't the slightest idea that I was building a business for myself. Fate planned that I became a poultryman in Connecticut in the area served by UCF. The several thousand dollars that I have received as patronage refund and preferred shares do not fully measure the personal benefit that I have derived from this fine farmers' co-op. My wife and I are most grateful to UCF for the rewards we have reaped in the poultry business.

Life proceeds along a definite course. A few of the fine men and women are still with us who were present when the magic words were spoken that brought UCF into being. To them and to those who have passed on we are greatly indebted. I feel honored that I was present with them and played a small part in the founding of UCF as a monument to the tenacity and courage of the Finnish-American farmers.

Published in Twenty Fifth Anniversary 1928-1953, a Supplement to "The Co-operative Farmer", August 1953. 1953, p. 12-15.

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