It was ironic that at about the time last month’s Rural Voice was arriving in your mail box, containing my column arguing the need to remember the contributions of those who have built today’s world, that we lost a prime example of that sort of leader.
When he died at Clinton on January 31 at the age of 91, Gordon Hill was one of the last of an extraordinary post-war generation of farm leaders who took time from their own farming operations to fight for a better break for Ontario’s, and Canada’s, farmers.
I was only a recent graduate of journalism school, returned to my own neck of the woods to edit a community newspaper, when I first began to know of Gordon Hill back in 1970. He’d been President of the Ontario Farmers’ Union in the late 1960s when he became convinced farmers needed a united voice, so he was among the prominent farm leaders who argued for a General Farm Organization (GFO). After a hotly-contested vote of farmers turned down the GFO, Gordon turned to Plan B.
By the time I started covering the farm scene, he had become President of the Ontario Federation of Agricul-ture (OFA) and was determined to turn it into the organization he’d hoped the GFO would have been. The OFA had been funded by township levies on farm taxes, which meant most ordinary farmers were disengaged from the group’s activ-ities, leaving it to a handful of farm-ers to run the township federations which in turn supported the county, Ontario and Canadian federations. Gordon and other OFA leaders were convinced this had to change.
So in 1970 the concept of an individual membership in the OFA had been born. It meant there needed to be a huge and committed effort to visit farmers on every concession across an entire province to convince them that they should part with their hard-earned cash to buy a member-ship. Hundreds of people volunteered in the effort, but of course some were better at sales than others. Every county would have had its stars but being in Huron County, I especially remember people like Mason Bailey and Vince Austin who beat the bushes to recruit dozens of members.
I knew of Gordon Hill by name, of course, and now and again saw him at farm meetings, but I’m sure he was too busy to know about the skinny kid who edited his local newspaper. As years went by, how-ever, I was privileged to interview Gordon several times and when our paths crossed at local farm meetings, we usually found time for a chat. He was always a friendly, sincere, passionate supporter of agriculture.
The OFA wasn’t the only way he helped farmers, of course. He championed many causes, at both the provincial and local levels and was honoured for his efforts by being inducted into Ontario’s Agricultural Hall of Fame.
He was among a generation of leaders who fought for farmers, often against difficult odds. I’m thinking about those who faced contentious battles against packers, drovers and the provincial government but eventually won the right for pork producers to unite to sell their hogs through a central auction. There were also the dairy, chicken and egg farmers who fought similar battles to establish supply management in their sectors and turn them from among the most precarious commodities into the most secure.
These leaders, men and women, changed farming, and those changes altered rural society. There was an incredible passion in the rejuvenated OFA of the 1970s, for instance, that I’ve missed in more recent years. There’d be a big turnout at the county federation’s monthly meetings with people eager to tackle common problems. People like Gordon Hill sparked that passion. He may be gone but he left his mark on rural Ontario.◊