The Rise and Fall of United Grain Growers – Review

The book “The Rise and Fall of United Grain Growers” by Paul D. Earl is exactly that – the story of the formation of UGG and its climb to greatness, through its decline in the 1970s and 1980s until it was acquired by the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and became Viterra.

There haven’t been many books written about United Grain Growers (UGG). There’s The First Fifty Years by R.D. Colquette and A Farmer’s Company Comes of Age issued by UGG itself. Both cover the rise of UGG but were written decades before the end of UGG. Both were also quite sympathetic toward the company.

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Author Paul Earl’s book is more objective than the two books mentioned above, and is certainly more critical of the end of UGG than any company-commissioned book would be. One almost gets the feeling that the author was personally offended by the way UGG was taken over by the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool.

“Rise and Fall” provides a great introduction to UGG and the forces at play that caused a small group of farmers to form the Grain Growers Grain Cooperative, which became UGG, and indeed started the farmer’s cooperative movement in western Canada.

The book goes on to describe each of the presidents of UGG in turn, and what happened at the Company during their respective tenures as president. Some served longer than others, but most had a significant impact on the company and helped it to prosper in its first 40 or 50 years of life.

The Canadian grain industry stagnated in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly due to the Crow Rate and the disincentive to improve grain facilities because of it. The railways had no incentive to improve grain handling, as they were already losing money shipping grain. Service degraded, farmers and elevator companies suffered, and no capital was available to improve facilities and make them more efficient. Outwardly UGG seemed okay but its financial information showed that it became less profitable and took on more debt.

By the 1990s the three Pools and UGG were all in significant financial trouble. They had swapped elevators in towns across the Prairies in an attempt to become more efficient, but that wasn’t enough. Eventually they began to merge to try to become more efficient.

A significant amount of the book is dedicated to these mergers, and the eventual fight between the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and James Richardson International to acquire UGG and the rest of Agricore United. The author looks at that effort in detail, and tries to understand why the board made the decisions it did.

I really enjoyed the book, particularly the first two thirds where the history of UGG was discussed in detail. The last third of the book went a little too deep into the mergers and acquisitions for my taste. It is good that this is documented in such detail for future reference.

I learned a lot from this book and I encourage Canadian grain elevator fans to acquire a copy. I purchased mine at McNally Robinson but you can also purchase it on Amazon or on AbeBooks.