By Tom Collins
VARNA — The longest-serving president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture was a self-described hell-raising radical who is being remembered as the most effective leader in Ontario’s largest farm organization.
Gordon Hill was president of the OFA from 1969 to 1976. Feisty and fearless, he wasn’t afraid to make waves — even advocating breaking the law — and was instrumental in achieving many farmer benefits, including a reduced farm tax rate. Hill died Jan. 31 in Varna. He was 91. A celebration of life service will be held at the Stanley Community Centre (38572 Mill Rd. Varna, Ont.) on Saturday, Feb. 17 from 10 a.m. until the noon service.
Hill was a beef, crop and hog farmer and part of a radical movement in the 1960s, spending years trying to tear down the OFA and persuade all farm groups to enter one big tent under one general farm organization. It didn’t work, so he and friend Malcolm Davidson decided to fix the OFA from within. Hill joined the OFA and was convinced to run for president a year later.
In Knocking on Doors, his autobiography released last year, Hill talked about how the OFA was dead before many new faces were elected. “The old federation died, and it was reborn with our new slate of officers in 1969,” he wrote, adding that they became “aggressive and pushy.”
“When Gordon Hill showed up, you knew there was business. He filled auditoriums. He had the ear of the minister in those days,” said Farmers Forum founder Terry Meagher, who was also a Kemptville College instructor and reporter for Farm and Country, Ontario’s largest farm newspaper back in the 1970s. “He moved farmers. It was a different OFA with him. This was an OFA that was politically active.”
The OFA was very active in local issues, protesting in auditoriums and taking on governments on a range of issues that included hydro lines and gas pipeline installations, Meagher said. “There was a real strong movement in the 70s to get a better deal for farmers and to get political clout for farmers. In my experience, Gordon Hill was the most powerful speaker and the most effective for farmers in the history of the OFA.”
Added Meagher: “He was very polite and pleasant with me. He had some rebel in him. He was for the rights of farmers. If there was a problem, he was there.”
Meagher remembered Hill speaking at Kemptville College. “Someone walked by and said, ‘Who is that demagogue?’ I didn’t think that at all. I thought he was a powerful, powerful speaker.”
Up until 1970, farmers paid the full rate for property taxes — 50 per cent of it for education. That meant farmers were paying $500 to $600 in education taxes, while urban residents were paying about $100, Hill wrote. The old OFA had been meeting the province for 20 years, but no progress was made. The Hill-led OFA passed a motion in 1970 encouraging farmers to break the law and not pay the educational portion of their property taxes.
“When the resolution was presented, I thought it would never pass because it called on farmers to not pay their taxes. Farmers are law-abiding citizens and anyone not paying taxes would not be held in high regard,” wrote Hill. “If we try to rebuild an organization that encourages farmers not to pay taxes, I didn’t think anyone would want to be a part of that. I assured myself it wouldn’t carry, but as the discussion continued, the number of people supporting the resolution convinced me that it would. I just about messed my pants. Don’t get me wrong, I had never subscribed to the theory that we would be nice to politicians, but this was the law we would be breaking.”
Farmers were right behind Hill and many withheld their education taxes. Ontario premier Bill Davis dropped the farm tax to 75 per cent that same year and then to 50 per cent the year after. It took at least another 10 years before the tax rate dropped to 25 per cent. It was a huge victory in farm country.
Hill became convinced about radical tactics during a tractor protest in 1966. Before supply management was introduced, the Quebec government started paying Quebec dairy farmers a milk subsidy of 75 cents per hundredweight. The Ontario government refused to do the same. Hill joined a tractor parade to Queen’s Park, where they demanded to speak with Ontario ag minister Bill Stewart. But he wouldn’t come out until a farmer found an unlocked door and they all walked in. They called out for Stewart in a hallway until he showed up. Stewart tried to speak, but was shouted down. A few months later, Stewart brought forward a 25 cent per hundredweight subsidy for industrial milk.
“That’s when I really started to believe that if farmers raised less corn and more hell, we’d be better off,” wrote Hill. “At first I thought that radical tactics would only serve to alienate politicians and consumers, but in reality we saw the opposite.”
Hill was later in Ottawa in the hallway of the House of Commons lobbying a Liberal MP about the National Farm Products Marketing Agencies Act when then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau came walking down the hall. “I wasted no time in telling Pierre Trudeau how badly we needed this legislation.” The act passed a short time later. “I think it is one of the most important things I was ever involved in,” Hill recalled.
Bette Jean Crews, president of the OFA from 2008 to 2011, first met Hill in 2000. Hill was initially critical of Crews but they got along better once Crews explained to Hill that her strategy was different.
“Over time, Gordon and I developed a mutual respect,” she said, adding Hill was a mentor. “It was never hard to deal with him because he would listen. As president of OFA, I had most difficultly with people who were so focused on what they were thinking and what they were going to say, they couldn’t even talk to you about a possible solution. But Gordon would listen.”
She remembered how he would raise money to help farmers in developing countries.
“He used to come to conventions and stand up just before lunch and pass the hat,” she said. “And it didn’t matter how much was in the hat. He’d say ‘we counted it and we’re $300 short.’ So he’d pass the hat again. He’d probably get another $682. And (then he’d say) ‘If we had even another $8, while you’re going out the door, drop a buck in the hat and we can have a round number.’ He was quite an act.”
Hill, who lost his left eye when it struck by a piece of steel in a farm repair accident, had nicknames for most people. His wife’s name was Ruby and he would wink at the children and call her Pearl. Together they raised two girls and one boy. Their son Bev continues to farm near Varna. He is a grain grower and elevator operator.
There is no doubt marketing boards help farmers get better prices and they’re more satisfying than support payments in the form of a government cheque. “I still believe that supply management has been the most effective farm policy we have ever used,” he said in his autobiography.
Hill also said the OFA needs to go back to the way things were.
“I think we’re back to the time when the OFA is trying to be cosy with politicians,” he wrote. “I think we need a new generation of hell-raisers.”